Since the late 1960s, a book club of local women had met monthly to together roam through the pages of far-flung tales.
When the group read Barbara Ehrenreich's expose on the challenges of living on minimum wages, they knew the story would have real-life consequences for themselves and for local residents struggling to overcome poverty.
In her book, "Nickel and Dimed," Ehrenreich goes undercover to work unskilled jobs — as a waitress in Florida and a Walmart clerk in Minnesota — to bring to life the daily struggle of surviving on earning $7 an hour.
Inspired by Ehrenreich's book, the group launched the One Month's Rent Initiative, a nonprofit organization that helps low-wage earners facing eviction.
"We couldn't just drop it. We had to do something," said club member Anne Dodd, chief judge of the county's Orphan's Court.
For more than 12 years, the group has approved donations for one month's rent or a security deposit for individuals threatened with losing housing due to a personal, economic or medical crisis.
The beauty of the program lies in its simplicity, said Jane Parrish, a 71-year-old Columbia resident and president of One Month's Rent.
The Community Action Council, a nonprofit organization that serves food-insecure residents in the county, vets candidates for donations. Over an email thread, the initiative's board considers whether or not to approve the donation. If approved, the council releases funds to the landlord or mortgage company.
The initiative fills a major need for clients whose incomes are too high for other housing assistance, according to Beth Stein, the council's rapid response coordinator. Many clients are not used to asking for financial help because they can make ends meet until an emergency comes along, she said.
Speed is key in the process because many people facing eviction need immediate assistance, Dodd said.
Most approvals take between two and three hours. The group's treasurer gathers donations mailed to the group's post office box and turns them over to the council. Another member gives out handwritten thank you notes to contributors. Dodd coordinates approvals from the board.
Members raise funds through a newsletter mailing each September. In the last year, the group has disbursed $23,000 in aid to 16 working families, including a single parent whose apartment was destroyed by a fire, and distributed $250,000 over the last 12 years. Some recipients are just over the poverty line and do not qualify for state or federal assistance.
"What surprises me is how fast someone could run into a serious financial hardship," Parrish said. "It doesn't take much if they're just making it. Many of the people we help don't have a safety net like friends or family who can help them during a crisis. Pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps doesn't always ring possible for everyone."
Dodd said securing affordable housing in the county is especially challenging.
"You can have several workers in a family and if you run into just one bad thing, it can take you off balance so that you can't meet your obligations. Affordable housing is really the biggest problem because of what it takes to rent or pay a mortgage."
The organization also absorbs all costs associated with the program and has partnered with local organizations, such as a Long and Foster office based in Columbia, for yearly donations.
"We're all just middle class people. We don't have a whole lot of money. When we give, we want it to do a whole lot of good," Parrish said.
The group includes former teachers, a retired media specialist, a web expert and a retired professor of medical ethics. The entire process is anonymous. While the council works with clients one-on-one, members of One Month's Rent know no names of the people it helps.
All they ask is one favor from beneficiaries: paying the deed forward.
"All we ask [them] in return is to help another family with a housing need in their lifetime," Dodd said.