When Sandy Richardson retired from teaching at Laguna Middle School, she looked around for another way to make a difference. She found it in the pages of a magazine.
Richardson read an article in Real Simple magazine that featured a Washington, D.C., group called Womenade. The group had a no-frills way to raise money for worthy causes: Periodically, the members held a potluck, and each guest contributed a casserole or other favorite dish, along with a check for $35. The money was pooled to help low-income families with a variety of basic needs.
Richardson decided to duplicate the effort here. The first Womenade potluck was held in her San Luis Obispo home in 2003. Six years later, the group --which includes both women and men -- has mushroomed to more than 300 members.
More than $55,000 has been raised by Womenade, and the money has gone to fill a plethora of needs -- diapers and formula, high chairs and cribs, professional clothing for job interviews, help with rent so families can avoid eviction.
There have been more unusual requests granted too.
The group contributed funds so a plastic surgeon could restore the eyebrows of a young woman who was badly injured in a fire. It supplied a formal suit of clothes for a homeless man, so he could be appropriately dressed for his father's funeral. And it recently pitched in to help buy a letter-man's jacket for a special education student who excels at athletics.
Sandy describes the organization as "the grass roots of the grass roots."
There are no applications for recipients to fill out, no waiting periods, no red tape.
There also is no overhead -- no paid staff, no office, not even any mailing expenses, since all communication is via e-mail.
That means that 100 percent of donations can go to providing help -- and that's exactly what happens.
"We really try to get our funds down to nothing by the time we have a potluck, " said Richardson.
In addition to the donations made at the quarterly potlucks --which are typically attended by a core group of 25 to 35 women--the group puts out e-mail alerts to all its members when there is a particular need.
Almost instantaneously, the call for help is answered. If a request is made for a particular size of clothing, for example, before she knows it, Richardson finds bags of clothes on her doorstep.
Womenade learns about needs in the community through referrals from public health nurses, schools, homeless shelters and other public and nonprofit agencies.
Irene Vega, a field nursing program supervisor for the
county health department, is one of the medical professionals who has seen the group step up time and again.
"I really don't know the particulars of where these wonderful women come from, " she said, but she knows that when a need is identified, Womenade is there.
One example: Not only has the organization provided furniture -- such as cribs and mattresses -- for needy families, its members have also delivered the items.
"When you have 300 people giving a little, " said Vega, "that's a lot."
It is indeed.
We salute Sandy Richardson and all the women--and men --of Womenade. In their quiet way, they've made life better for countless Central Coast families. The Tribune is proud to recognize them as unsung heroes.
Readers interested in contacting Womenade, the heroes profiled on Nov. 29, can reach the group at firstname.lastname@example.org