Last winter, volunteers at the Magic Valley Area Humanitarian Center set out to sew 125 quilts during each cold-weather month for families experiencing homelessness and others in need.
It was an ambitious goal, especially for an organization less than a year old, run entirely by unpaid volunteers.
With near countless volunteer hours, and the help of a Community Health Improvement Fund grant from St. Luke’s Health System, the small-but-mighty center based in Rupert blew past that number, ultimately producing more than 800 quilts total.
“That was for people who are struggling with mental illnesses on the streets,” said Becky Schow, president of the MVAHC. “When we get these quilts to the crisis center in Twin Falls and the (College of Southern Idaho’s) refugee program, or even the Valley House groups for families in need, we are just trying to help everybody with those quilts.”
Since opening its doors in March 2019 — after years of renovating an old grocery store with the help of generous community members, and registering with the IRS as a nonprofit organization — Schow and the center’s volunteers have found myriad ways to address the needs of low-income individuals and families.
In addition to the quilts, the organization’s volunteers assemble hygiene kits for students who lack basic items like toothpaste and deodorant; school supply kits for children in need; and newborn kits for parents that include blankets, diapers and more.
“It’s a center where we make certain items that we give freely,” said Schow, who was inspired by a similar effort in Idaho Falls. “There is no charge for them, and they are all brand new. There are lots of different community organizations that are trying to help people, and we are assisting them.”
Schow’s enthusiasm for helping people in need is unmistakable. The same goes for many across the greater Magic Valley, like the hundreds of people who have volunteered at the center.
On a given day, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, they had as many as 75 volunteers. Last year, Schow tallied about 34,000 volunteer hours, the equivalent of nearly 17 full-time employees.
Unfortunately, that all quickly changed in March, as COVID-19 cases started to rise in Idaho. The center quickly shut down, but the volunteers still wanted to help. They started distributing handsewn masks to drive-through visitors and even two health care facilities in the area.
They also led a Magic Valley-wide effort to produce 100,000 masks – a goal they believe the community surpassed recently.
“It’s nice to see how they have adapted with COVID-19 and changed to meet that need in the community,” said Kyli Gough, St. Luke’s Magic Valley community health manager.
To fulfill local needs, Schow and her army of volunteers aren’t afraid to innovate. They use recycled plastic grocery bags to produce sleeping mats for people who are experiencing homelessness.
“We weave them together and make a very nice, soft mat that could be put on a hot street and it keeps people cool when they are sitting on them,” Schow said. “When it’s cold outside it keeps them warm, and we have built-in pillows. We are using all of the grocery bags, keeping that out of the landfills.”
Schow’s team has dispersed the mats across the Magic Valley and even sent some to the Boise area for homeless shelters. They are clean, soft and durable.
In fact, everything the center gives away is utilitarian. Those quilts? They’re made by some of the center’s volunteers who previously worked at The Gathering Place, a small business in Rupert renowned for its high-quality quilts. The quilts are so popular at the center that many people ask if they can buy them.
“We tell people that we don’t sell anything,” Schow said, noting the quilts are earmarked for people in need. The center also partners with the American Red Cross to distribute the quilts after home fires.
To fund these charitable efforts, the organization has received two St. Luke’s CHIF grants, using the funds to acquire much-needed equipment, like a binding machine, to boost the efficiency of the quilt-making process.
“We are really excited to have this new organization come forward to apply for grant funding that is doing such amazing things, especially in the eastern region of our footprint,” Gough said.
Schow and others are now working on reopening the center, likely in July, implementing thorough cleaning practices and social distancing guidelines. They are looking forward to safely bringing community members and organizations back together.
“We love having partners and teamwork with all kinds of organizations,” Schow said.
Daniel Mediate works in the St. Luke’s Community Engagement department.