SALEM, Ohio — Once a month a line of people can be seen stretching down the sidewalk of Broadway Avenue in Salem and around the corner.
Whether it’s raining or snowing, hot or cold, it doesn’t matter. Families by the dozens wait patiently for their turns to go inside The Brightside Project.
For the children, the event is easily the highlight of their day, perhaps even their week or month.
“When they come here they feel safe. It’s a safe environment; it’s a happy environment,” says Lisa Wallace, co-director of The Brightside Project.
Wallace began the 501(c)3 nonprofit with her father, Scott Lewis, in 2016 to help children in Columbiana County who have experienced trauma. Their main source of outreach is the monthly giveaway.
Once the families enter the Brightside Project, the parents are asked to sit in the waiting area while the kids go “shopping.”
“It’s always one-on-one interaction with our volunteers. The volunteers walk them through the food pantry,” and the children are allowed to pick out whatever they want, free-of-charge, Wallace says.
Items in the pantry include non-perishable foods, toiletries, afterschool snacks and some small toys. Wallace says the number of families served by the monthly giveaways is consistently growing, so seeing the long line of happy people is bittersweet because it means the need is so great.
“There’s a large percentage of kids in today’s world that are underserved,” says William Dawes, a member of The Brightside Project board of directors.
Dawes says most people think the children, presented with such an opportunity, would run wild through the pantry, grabbing everything they could, but the opposite is true.
“They’re so thankful for what’s being given to them, and they’re hesitant to take advantage of the newfound independence, that they have to be hand-held and encouraged that this is OK. This is all here for them,” he says.
For Erika Hawkins, a single mother who works as a home health aide in Salem, the giveaways help stretch her budget. “Even though I work, I’m a single mom, so I’m paying full bills.”
Hawkins says she gets $100 a month in food stamps, barely enough for meat and other healthful foods. “So as far as getting my daughter some extra snacks or something she likes, I can’t always do that,” she says. “Sometimes I have to tell my daughter, ‘No. That’s not in our budget today.’ ”
But being able to tell the 5-year-old that next week she gets to go to The Brightside Project and pick out some snacks helps to alleviate that pain, she says. “It’s something that she gets to look forward to every month. It’s her individualized shopping trip.”
Before each child leaves, he (or she) is given a book and the choice of a stuffed animal to take home.
“A mom told me that her son has been here three times, has gotten a stuffed animal every time, and he has them lined up on his dresser,” says Wallace. “He’s in fourth grade. So for that fourth-grade boy, these are the things that are meaning a lot to him.”
According to Feed America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger relief organization, the food insecurity rate in Columbiana County was 14% in 2017.
“Times are still tough,” affirms Scott Lewis, executive director of The Brightside Project. “People can say, ‘No, they’re not.’ But times are still tough.”
And it’s not just economic hard times The Brightside Project is dealing with. “In our community, income is not an indicator of trauma,” Wallace says.
Many children are coming in after being sent to live with a relative because their parents are suffering from opioid addiction or are incarcerated.
“They may be over the poverty income level but that doesn’t mean that child hasn’t experienced any less trauma,” she says.
The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study poses a list of 10 questions that are meant to measure how likely a child is to exhibit at-risk behaviors and experience life-threatening health problems as an adult.
The questions asked include: “Have you witnessed domestic violence?” and “Have you been the victim of physical or sexual abuse?”
The more questions answered “yes,” the greater the risk.
The Brightside Project modified the Adverse Childhood Experiences test and found that 71% of the children it serves answered “yes” to four or fewer questions. “But that means 29% of our children are seeing five or more of the adverse childhood experiences,” says Wallace.
Another cause of childhood trauma in the community is unique to a specific population in the Salem area: Guatemalan immigrants.
In June 2018, agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security raided the Fresh Mark Inc. meat and packaging plant there, arresting 146 people, primarily from Guatemala.
The children of the families, who eventually were reunited, were taken to the First Christian Church in Salem while their parents were processed. Upon hearing about the raid, Wallace and Lewis went to the church to see if they could help.
“Just seeing the kids crying – that was the pivotal point with me,” Lewis recalls.
Wallace says the mother of a boy who comes to the giveaway each month was recently detained by ICE and has since been released, but is facing up to 15 years in prison.
“We’re law-abiding citizens and we understand that you do have to follow the law. We get that. But we also see a little boy who may not see his mom until he’s 21 years old,” she says.
Lewis and Wallace, who both work full-time jobs, say the day of the raid convinced them they needed to step up their efforts to help children in the community. They purchased the building on South Broadway Avenue last year and began looking for help to get it up and running.
Justin Rance, a carpenter with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, volunteered to build some walls and do all the drywall along with his father. “I see the drug epidemic, the poverty. I wanted to help Scott out because I believe in what they’re doing,” he says.
A few weeks ago Lewis met with Tom Reeveley, president of Team Office Technologies in Austintown, to discuss the organization’s need for a copier.
“Tom believes strongly in what Scott does. They do some great work,” says Pattie Paltotsee, business-grade specialist with Team Office.
Reeveley is helping Lewis by donating to the nonprofit a color copier and some computer software.
“The most money they spend is in printing. We don’t want them to have to spend all that money on printing; so this way they can at least print in-house,” Paltotsee says.
Today, The Brightside Project has 30 volunteers and serves more than 1,000 children annually. All staff, including Lewis and Wallace, is unpaid.
Operating revenue comes from fundraisers, such as the organization’s annual masquerade ball, which usually brings in around $5,000, plus private donations.
Wallace says the nonprofit is also working with Youngstown State University, which is assisting Brightside with grant writing.
“It is not an organization where donated funds get lost in administrative costs,” says Dawes. “They are truly a conduit for the money, information, supplies, food. A very large percentage of what is given to them is passed right through their hands to the children.”
This year the focus for Brightside will be outreach events such as “Bright Easter,” “Bright Christmas,” and a back-to-school drive for children in Salem. The Brightside Project is taking over the back-to-school program from Church Women United, which this year lacked sufficient volunteers.
Children who sign up receive a voucher they can take to Wal-Mart to purchase new clothes and shoes. Funding comes from the Community Foundation of Salem and private donors, Lewis says.
“We were put here for a reason, right in this spot. And I think we were put here for the year when the church women decided they’re not doing it.”
Brightside also plans to donate backpacks filled with school supplies to children in need countywide.
“It just seems like a good fit for us,” Lewis says.
Down the road, Wallace and Lewis hope to secure more partnerships so they can take Brightside’s services to those in need instead of requiring that they come to them.
And eventually, the father and daughter hope to secure enough funding so they can leave their jobs and devote themselves to The Brightside Project full-time. “All the decisions I’m making right now are with this as the end result. That’s our ultimate goal,” Wallace says.
Wallace also hopes to be able to offer fresh foods such as milk and produce at their giveaways.
“We’re growing and the more people that know about us and partner with us and help us, we’ll make those things happen,” adds Lewis.
What’s most important, they say, is that their work serves as a bright spot in the lives of those in need in the community.
“It’s really just families looking for hope,” says Wallace. “They say when their kids come here they’re so happy. We have one mom who says she’s never seen her kids that happy.”
How You Can Help
You can help The Brightside Project make an impact in the lives of children in Columbiana County by making a donation at BrightSideProjectOhio.org/give.
All donations made at this time will be put toward the purchase of the nonprofit’s first mobile unit.
“We need donors who can support us,” says Lisa Wallace, co-director of The Brightside Project in Salem.
Additional help can be given by volunteering to assist The Brightside Project with its monthly pantry giveaways. Interested parties can organize book drives, or gather stuffed animals that will be passed out to local children.
“We also need product partners who can help us with products for the children,” says Executive Director Scott Lewis.
You can register to volunteer or organize a fundraiser for The Brightside Project at BrightSideProjectOhio.org/give.
Pictured: Lisa Wallace and her father, Scott Lewis, started The Brightside Project to help disadvantaged children.