By Rick Rowan of the Ravalli Republic | Jun 10, 2017
With a staff of just three, the Andrew Walters Foundation for Charitable Giving provides assistance to families and individuals in need throughout Ravalli County.
Operating by word of mouth, Irene and Ron Walters and Judy Kendall find any way they can to help solve what they call the “invisible problems.” The Andrew Walters Foundation was created in January 2016 in honor of the Walters’ son, Andrew, who passed away in 2006. They said he always thought that if everyone chipped in just a little bit, no one would have to be poor.
“He was a really strong believer in not judging a book by its cover,” Irene Walters said.
The percentage of people living below the poverty line in Ravalli County is, 20 percent, 5 percent higher than the country as a whole, according to U.S. Census data. Irene and Ron Walters said they believe there are nearly 1,500 people in Ravalli County who experience some level of housing insecurity.
“There’s a terrific amount of poverty. In the valley there’s a real invisible homeless problem, it’s not just people sleeping under the bridge, there’s lots of people up camping in the forest,” Ron Walters said.
Irene Walters works at Sapphire Community Health Center now, and the health center gave her a room to store supplies for the foundation. But even before starting the Andrew Walters Foundation she was dedicated to working with underserved communities. She created a partnership with Bitterroot Drugs seven years ago to match payments from donors to help people afford copayments for medications.
“Unless you have a blatantly obvious mental illness like schizophrenia, you look fairly well to people on the street and the community expects you to work, but you can’t without proper medication,” Irene Walters said.
The Walters’ refer to the problems of mental illness and poverty as a continuum, and said that thinking of these ideas as a dichotomy isn’t helpful. And while there are serious cases where a person needs significant intervention, there are others who only need just a little hand up.
“Just getting payment for meds or a security deposit might make someone who is on the margin able to get over into that area where they’re okay,” Ron Walters said. “But until basic needs are addressed there’s no way someone could self-actualize.”
The medication payment partnership with Bitterroot Drug morphed into a number of different projects. The Andrew Walters Foundation now hosts a Christmas Store at Sapphire Community Health Center, a family photo program for families unable to pay a photographer, it offers assistance with temporary hotel stays in the winter and donates backpacks with survival items.
The backpack program is Kendall’s area of expertise. She fill backpacks with basic grooming supplies, a sleeping bag, dry socks and pop-top canned food and donates them to the homeless.
“It’s been really eye opening for me who has never wanted for a thing in my life,” Kendall said.
They’ve put together about 15 backpacks for people so far, but there is no shortage of people who need help, according to Ron Walters. The pop-top canned food is important because many people don’t even have a proper can opener and end up cooking the can directly in a fire.
While the foundation was created in honor of Andrew Walters, there were other catalysts that led to its start as well. Irene Walters told a story about a day when finances were tight, and nothing was going well for her.
“I was having a really hard time one day, crying on the phone with my sister and a very visibly weathered and homeless man sat down about 25 feet away from me,” Irene Walters said. “When I got off the phone he said to me in a very unintrusive way, ‘I see you’re having a bad day, and I just didn’t want to leave you alone,’ and he just sat there and held space with me. It just reminded me that there is goodness in everyone.”
The resources that exist in Ravalli County are doing great things, according to the Walters, but with their foundation they try to fill in the gaps.
“If folks have needs, just ask the Sapphire Community Health Center for the Backpack Program, no questions are asked,” Irene Walters said.