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Spreading a Little HOPE

Local nonprofit lifts spirits while providing much-needed help

HOPE for All founders Diane and Leo Zerhusen.
     Last September, Michelle Dashiells needed a little hope.
     She had recently divorced her husband, leaving her a single mother raising two children, a 13-year-old boy with special needs and a six-year-old girl. The 41-year-old mother also struggled with a bone-degenerative disease — she has almost no cartilage in her bones and can’t lift things — as well as arbitrary seizures and a neurological disorder that causes memory loss.
     Dashiells’s living conditions were in pretty bad shape, too.
     The rooms of her public housing townhouse at Meade Village in Severn were naked. Dashiells needed furniture, dishes, a microwave. Her clothes were scattered across the floor because she did not have a dresser. She did not own a table to eat on. No towels, either.
     Her $900 disability check had to cover rent, gas and car insurance. “I was struggling to get by,” she said.
      Dashiells needed help; she also needed hope.
      At her church, a friend recommended a little-known nonprofit in Anne Arundel County: HOPE For All.
Hope and Help
      HOPE For All bills itself as a Christian nonprofit that provides struggling Anne Arundel County residents with much-needed clothing and furniture. But the organization does more than that.
     Besides furniture and clothing— including beds — the organization supplies jewelry, toys, decorative items and all sorts of housewares. HOPE will pull strings to get what’s needed, even if it’s outside the budget or supply area.
HOPE’s clients will get everything they ask for.
      “Some families are so far behind,” said HOPE board president Connie Cooper. “We’re the missing link. There is no one else doing what we do in its entirety.”
     The nonprofit hosts two major programs: Houses in the Homes, which supplies furniture to families; and Head To Toe, a clothing program for school children.
     The bigger and costlier program, Houses in the Homes directs callers in need to send a referral to county government programs, often social services. With the forwarded referral in hand, HOPE sends out a team to meet the family at home.
     That’s how Dashiells got a dresser, dishes, towels and a surprise ironing board.
     Maryland’s poverty rate is 9.3 percent; Anne Arundel County’s six percent, according to U.S. Census data. Compared to other counties such as Baltimore, Anne Arundel fares better. Yet areas such as Glen Burnie and Brooklyn Park have poverty levels well above 20 percent, according to a 2015 county report.
Median rent has shot up from $700 in 2000 to $1,331 in 2013. Renters are spending almost half of their income on rent. Public housing helps fill the gap, but it has its own problems. “Much in Annapolis and Anne Arundel County is aging and in need of repair,” the report concludes.
     HOPE is easing the burden of poverty for more than 2,500 people this year. But that’s only a thin slice of the pie, said Leo Zerhusen, HOPE’s founder. Poverty in the county is a crisis, one which he devotes 60 hours a week combating.
      “It’s not even the tip of the iceberg, what we do,” he said. “People need to know what’s happening. The kids are hungry.”
Growing HOPE
      The work begins at HOPE’s headquarters in the heart of Glen Burnie.
      In a 14,000-square-foot warehouse, volunteers and employees are scattered across the cement grounds, packaging clothing, sorting through housewares and unloading furniture.
      On a hot afternoon, a St. Mary’s student helps unload furniture from a U-Haul truck in the back of the warehouse, and a Severn Middle School team works to sort through piles of clothing on a rough wooden table. A puppy playfully barks in a cage nearby. HOPE rescued the dog.
     Many other volunteers are lightly picking through donated items, determining what will go to a yard sale or be discarded.
     Items are organized into bins that display clothing for boys or girls and men or women. Yard sale items are organized on rows of tables. In the back, furniture is assorted by item, until a piece is placed in a wooden cubby, pending delivery to a family.
     HOPE has grown from small beginnings.
     Zerhusen and wife Diane, both middle school teachers, founded the company from their basement in 2000. A church charity trip to Virginia was their conversion. Zerhusen realized lack of clothing was a huge problem for the poor across the country.
      “The needs in this country are so great,” he said.
      So, the Zerhusens started with donations of clothing. As word spread, the operation added an office and some volunteers. In 2004, HOPE was serving 13 families a year. By 2006, HOPE was a registered nonprofit serving more than 50 families from a small warehouse.
      Now, HOPE serves more than 300, but it’s still not enough, Zerhusen said. Seventy to 80 percent of students in Glen Burnie are going hungry. The top struggling cities in the county — Glen Burnie, Severn, Annapolis and Brooklyn Park — are being marginalized.
      “When you see the stories of these families, some are so much in crisis it’s unbelievable,” Zerhusen explained. “You have seniors with nothing but a metal chair in their apartment.”
      Zerhusen’s great frustration is that HOPE For All cannot do more.
     The operation costs $277,000 a year to run, Zerhusen said. Supplying beds — which many clients lack — costs $28,000 alone.
     The nonprofit sustains itself each year by a letter campaign to all its supporters, including 20 churches. 
      Each donation of $100 will buy a new bed for a family, or clothes for 10 kids.
“Almost all the money goes right to the programs,” Zerhusen said. 
     HOPE applies for government grants and corporate sponsors. It accepts and picks up donations. Many donated goods are given to clients. Less useful items — including toys, jewelry, vases, paintings and clocks — stock giant monthly yard sales.
     The yard sales are profitable, bringing in $3,000 to $4,000 a month. But they’d earn far more if donors were more careful about what they gave. Only clean, usable items do any good.
     Sixty percent of donated items are in such disrepair, that they must be thrown out.
     HOPE only pays eight full-time positions, such as operating and logistics managers. So volunteers are another huge help.
      More than 150 people help out each year, plus uncounted short-term students or Boy and Girl Scout troops. The volunteers help sort clothing, furniture and items for delivery, unloading donated shipments and meeting clients in their homes.
      Wanda Hartley is one of the regulars. She has volunteered four hours a week for more than 10 years, working in the warehouse sorting donated items for yard sales. She ensures game boards, toys and stuffed animals are in good condition.
     Hartley commutes from Calvert County because, she said, “It’s such a good feeling getting others back on their feet.”
Changing Lives
     By stretching its own shoestring, HOPE For All is changing lives.
     HOPE served roughly 900 struggling clients in both 2018 and 2017. This year, with a projection of more than 2,000 served, promises to be the most successful year yet.
      Seventy percent of female clients are single mothers, and 60 percent of HOPE’s clients are children, Zerhusen said. So HOPE’s effects are intergenerational.
     “On my own, I would not have been able to get all I have right now,” said Dashiells, one whose life has changed.
     “We eat off our dishes every day, and all of our clothes are in the dressers they provided. I wouldn’t have all this stuff if it wasn’t for them.”
      She is not alone. At Meade Village, she often sees the HOPE For All van.
     “HOPE For All does a lot for the community,” Dashiells said.
     “Families are crying, they are just so thankful,” said social worker Laura Werr, who works at Marley Elementary in Glen Burnie and Brooklyn Park Elementary, giving clothing from HOPE to more than 30 families a year.
      Volunteer Hartley says she sees the faces of change when she sees pictures of children holding up the stuffed animals she patched up.
      HOPE, she said, “does so many things for so many families.”
HOPE For All pop-up yard sale, Th Aug. 1, 5-7pm. Monthly yard sale second Sa. of every month, the next on Aug. 10, 8-11am, 122 Roesler Rd., Glen Burnie:
To volunteer or donate to HOPE For All, contact Robin Smith at at [email protected] or 410-766-0372.