Matt Driscoll

It’s clothed and fed Pierce County kids for decades. Now nonprofit is faced with closure

Lakewood kids charity might be out on the streets

The recent sale of the rent-free former Lakeview Elementary School buildings has Pierce County non-profit Caring for Kids searching for a new home.
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The recent sale of the rent-free former Lakeview Elementary School buildings has Pierce County non-profit Caring for Kids searching for a new home.

For Diane Formoso, it started 44 years ago with a young boy named Michael.

At the time, Formoso, now 73, was a fledgling bus driver in the Clover Park School District. It was late December, and she had a bus full of kindergartners.

She decided to ask what the kids were doing for Christmas.

“Of course they all shot up and came up (to tell me). And then Michael came up, just crying like crazy. He says, ‘Diane, Santa’s not going to come to my house because my mom has to pay the rent,’” Formoso recalled Thursday.

“So, we got him Christmas.”

She tells me this from inside an old schoolhouse that, today, is filled to the brim with clothes, books, backpacks, toothbrushes and just about anything else a struggling family might need.

Four decades ago, helping Michael have a Christmas hardly felt like the start of something big, she says. But in the years that followed, Formoso’s drive to help kids in need continued, and her efforts grew exponentially.

First, it blossomed into a “little clothing bank in the back of Lakeview Elementary School,” she recalls. Then, when the operation needed more room because it expanded to include things like food and books, it moved several more times, each time quickly filling the space it had. It eventually become the 501c3 nonprofit Caring for Kids in 1991.

For the last seven years, Formoso’s Caring for Kids has occupied some 7,200 square feet inside an old Clover Park schoolhouse near Joint Base Lewis McChord. The organization serves kids in three districts — Clover Park, Steilacoom and University Place — and last year its clothing bank alone helped more than 1,700 children get new shoes, jeans and other necessities.

There was uncertainty in the building Thursday morning, along with the stacked boxes and small, bustling team of Caring for Kids unpaid volunteers.

Come this time next year, the organization will be without a home. Unless it manages to find a new one — a potentially mighty task for a nonprofit with a $200,000 yearly budget that all goes to purchasing clothes and other items — Formoso’s decades-long charitable endeavor will be forced to end.

Recently, the Clover Park School District sold the schoolhouse Caring for Kids uses, and Formoso, who has never been paid for her efforts with the nonprofit, doesn’t know where to turn.

A spokeswoman for the Clover Park School District confirmed the sale of the building to The News Tribune. She said the building was too old and expensive to continue to maintain.

A search has commenced for a new building, in haste. At one point, a local church seemed like a possibility, but it didn’t have enough space or access. Then, a lead on a property near Bowlero Lanes seemed like it might work, but the owner wanted $45,000 a year in rent, with a five-year contract.

“I don’t know,” Formoso says when asked what the future holds. “I have no control over it. I’m at the point in my life where you can only do what you can do.

“I am not killing myself off to pay some rich person $45,000 a year.”

Without a new home, what stands to be lost is staggering. Last year, Caring for Kids served nearly 6,000 children at its school supply bank, distributed nearly 6,300 new books and provided gifts for 750 families — and nearly 2,000 kids — at its annual holiday fair.

The list goes on. In 2018, the nonprofit handed out 39 cases of laundry soap, 169 blankets and pillows, 94 air beds, 207 bags of baby clothes, 891 emergency meals, 2,241 dental kits and 2,750 coloring books with crayons.

Most of the children access Caring for Kids through their schools, Formoso says. They reach out to a counselor or another staff member, an order is created, and their needs are quickly met. The organization also holds large annual events, like its Ready to Learn Fair, which distributes backpacks and other school supplies prior to each school year.

In the Clover Park School District, the need is evident. More than 70 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

The need is underscored by a string of recent thefts the nonprofit endured. Over the last several months, the building has been burglarized nine times, Formoso says, with the thieves taking shoes, food and clothing. Plywood now covers the windows to protect them from being smashed out.

Lyle Attebery, a 68-year-old retired Lakewood high school and middle school teacher, is one of Caring for Kids’ volunteers. On Thursday morning, he was sitting at a table packing emergency meals into plastic bags.

Across from him sat Virginia Gilson, an 82-year-old retired physical education teacher. Both of them worked busily.

The two former teachers share a connection beyond volunteerism. Attebery was one of Gilson’s students, albeit briefly, at Lakes High School.

“I had one trimester of volleyball,” Attebery recalls with a chuckle.

Asked about the potential loss of Caring for Kids, Attebery struggling through his emotions, tries to put it into perspective.

“The need just breaks my heart,” Attebery says. “I just can’t stand it. It just drives me crazy.”

“We help so many hundreds of kids,” he continues. “They need us. They need this stuff.”

Deena Christensen, a retired paraeducator from Clover Park School District and another volunteer, offered her own story.

“I had a student, and I said to her, ‘You need to come to school everyday.’ And she goes, ‘But when my mom needs the shoes, I can’t come to school,’” Christensen recalled.

“Her and her mom were sharing a pair of shoes.”

Faced with an uncertain future, Formoso nonetheless holds out hope. She’s received help from three Pacific Lutheran University students who are helping to develop a business plan, which she believes will help.

Most of all, when it comes to finding a new location, Formoso is putting her faith in the community Caring for Kids has served since Michael needed a Christmas miracle so many years ago.

“Oh yeah,” Formoso says when asked whether she believes things will work out.

“I can’t take this away from the kids.”