BOISE, IDAHO -- "Somebody Needs You" was the small headline over two columns of type on page 6 of the B section of Sunday's edition of the Idaho Statesman. There were 37 short paragraphs on the page, and these were the first four:
"Living Independent Network Corp., a nonprofit working with people with disabilities, needs a 486 computer to run new software. Call Crystal . . . "
"Special Olympics needs volunteers to be sports partners, to coach and to organize. Times are flexible . . . "
"Volunteers . . . are needed to act as impartial reviewers in the case-review process for abused children in foster care . . . "
"Frail elderly male, low income and legally blind, needs an electric razor and vacuum . . . "
Then there was a woman with three children who needed wood %% for the winter; a disabled woman, housebound, who needed any kind of used computer to do some bookkeeping work at home; a 12-year-old boy, a foster child, who needed cleats and money for a school fee to play football this season; and a 3-year-old girl, another foster child, who wanted a rag doll with yarn hair for her birthday. And finally: "Low-income female veteran with a terminal illness would like a comfortable recliner chair . . . "
The number of items that had to do with foster care was frightening. One read: "Donations are needed to purchase Life Books ($13.95 each) for children in long-term foster care. Life Books provide a record of their childhood and help develop a positive sense of identity for children in foster care. Call . . . " Family albums without families.
The page of little stories had at least as much impact on me as Page 1. I read it twice; it reminded me of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town." There are real troubles and good people in our town now.
I called the woman who puts the page together, Teri Aschenbrenner of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. She told me that there are usually 10 responses to each item. "People are disappointed when they find out they can't help because someone else already has," she said.
Which ones does she remember? "There was a girl with a 3.8 average who made the cheerleaders, but couldn't afford $200 for the outfit," she said. "There was a woman, a mother of three children, who was in a wheelchair with multiple sclerosis who needed ramps and special door latches to get around the house with the kids. Three men who didn't know each other came over and built it all."
Strangers helping neighbors
I called Crystal at the Living Independent Network -- her last name is Christensen and she has put together a computer system for the disabled with old equipment donated over the years -- and asked the same question. "I got six calls in an hour when we asked for a used TTY, a text communications device, for an 8-year-old deaf girl. The first woman who called had just gone out and bought a fancy new one for $350 and the girl sent her a letter that began 'Thanks to you now I can talk to my best friend, Courtney.' "
"It's a godsend," said Crystal Christensen. "People are awfully good when you ask for help." You do get the sense that the givers feel at least as blessed as the receivers.
This has been going on for 12 years, and there are similar columns in other Idaho newspapers and in some others around the country. To deal with some obvious problems, all the copy has to be verified by churches and various other nonprofit operations.
There was a crisis last year when Gannett, which owns the Statesman, sent out a management team from headquarters in Virginia and somebody wondered why they were giving away free space and shut the thing down. Now they know why they run it. There were so many complaints that "Somebody Needs You" was back in three weeks.
Boise is a pretty tight little place with a population of 350,000 or so. I asked Teri Aschenbrenner whether she thought something like this would work in a bigger place, in New York or Los Angeles. "I don't see why not," she said. "You just have to try."
9- Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.