For 20 years, the Idyllwild HELP Center has been serving the poor, the homeless and the needy of this community. It has not always been easy, nor is it easy now, but its doors have always been open to provide food, heating, transportation, tutoring and other assistance to those residents in need.
In 1992, the doors opened on Pine Crest Avenue. Of course, just as much of the food and other supplies, which the center hands out, the property was a donation from Jack and Nancy Sarvela, two of the original founders.
Two years later, another donor provided a larger and the current site on Highway 243.
The Thrift Store opened on Aug. 31, 1995. Nearly 200 people toured the facility that day. A month later, the HELP Center held a fundraiser, including its now annual “Fashion Show.”
Since those doors opened, Karen Patterson, HELP Center executive director, estimates more than 3,500 people have been assisted in some way.
In 2012, the HELP Center assisted more than 500 people, including families. This is down nearly 20 percent in the past two years. Patterson attributes this to more people moving off the Hill.
“People have realized they need to leave. They’ve moved back in with families,” she said. “And they realize the services they need are not here, they’ve gone to the cities where more social services are available.”
The decline in the number of people served does not represent a diminishing lack of need for help on the Hill. In 2006, the year before Patterson became the executive director, the clientele totaled 147.
After her first year, 2007, the number served increased nearly 67 percent to 250 and continued to grow as the economy wilted. By 2011, it had nearly quadrupled. So the aid and assistance, which the HELP Center offers, is still direly needed.
The continuing support from the Idyllwild Community Fund enables the center to provide food vouchers to many locals. The vouchers are $25 per person in each household, with a $100 cap, Colleen Meyer, client services administrator, said.
The vouchers are good at Fairway, “so we keep the money in the community,” she added. There are restrictions on what can be bought and the HELP Center reviews the receipt.
There is also a food pantry, which is available to feed families for five days. Vouchers for medical care and a utility fund are also available. Unique to Idyllwild, the Fire Safe Council’s Woodies cuts and splits firewood as another source of heat during local winters.
“I like to think of the HELP Center and Thrift Store as Idyllwild’s Circle of Life,” said Lou Bacher, president of the HELP Center’s board of directors. “There is a good reason for everyone in town to visit with us regularly.
“Many people come for client services, some to donate [money or] items for us to sell in the Thrift Store, some donate food for our food bank and many to shop at the Thrift Store,” he added. “In a sense we’re like the post office in that you meet all your friends at the HELP Center. No one knows why anyone else is there except to be a part of the positive activities and action.”
Holidays — Thanksgiving and Christmas — are special occasions for the HELP Center to expand its services especially for turkey dinners and gifts for children.
To provide this HELP, the center needs help. “We always need food, toilet paper, other hygiene products and funds, especially with holidays approaching and the Angel gifts for kids,” Patterson said. “And this year, for the first time, the wood supply was depleted by July.”
And help comes from various sources. Local churches are very supportive of the center, but recently a former client came to the center’s doors and brought a dozen frozen turkeys, the person explained, “because you gave me a turkey one year.”
“The HELP Center is not a place people want to come,” said Patterson. “But help has been available for 20 years. What other organization has been here for 20 years? And we’re still going. It’s humbling and makes me so pleased.”
Going forward, Bacher said the center plans to continue all its current services and would like to add more as donations and funding allows. “Funds and grants are scarcer than ever,” he noted. “So we always need and appreciate both current and new benefactors and donors.”