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Christian corps provides beds for Westmoreland kids in awful need

| Saturday, April 28, 2012, 6:37 a.m.

Charlie Cunningham's family took in almost 60 foster children over many years, six or seven at a time, he said, while they lived in Detroit, Mich.

"I think that made me more aware of these things," he said.

Cunningham is founder and chief executive officer of the Christian Laymen Corps. The nonprofit organization operates solely on donations and by volunteers. The thrift store sells gently used clothing, furniture and household goods to help support local needs.

Several months ago, Cunningham launched "A Bed For Every Child," a campaign to provide at least 20 children's beds and dressers each month to needy families in Westmoreland County.

Referrals come through the county Children's Bureau, Westmoreland Case Management and Supports Inc., the Blackburn Center Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, the Pennsylvania Homeless Children's Initiative and Westmoreland Community Action.

Gesturing toward a twin bed frame, box spring, mattress and linens and a wooden dresser, Cunningham said, "This is what they get."

A donation of $365 can provide all of the above for one child.

Small donations and contributions of unisex bed linens and blankets are also welcome, said Julie Kostenbader, administrative assistant at the shop.

"This program is for children who are in desperate need," Cunningham said. "Thus far the funding has been adequate. The program is really just beginning to roll."

"We haven't really had to limit it," said Kostenbader. "We try to keep (furniture) in stock. We had to set limits because we did not know where to start. As funding goes up, the limit goes up."

The paperwork for recipients is kept confidential, she said.

Need for beds

The Community Foundation of Westmoreland County provided a $5,000 grant in start-up funding.

"The concept of children in Westmoreland County sleeping without beds broke a lot of (grant committee members') hearts," foundation President Kirk Utzinger said.

Mary Clark is the county site coordinator for the Pennsylvania Homeless Children's Initiative.

Between a slumping economy, foreclosures and evictions, and better reporting by area school districts, she has seen the number of homeless in the area rise.

She works with many families coming out of shelters, as well as young people who are not able to be independent and may be "couch surfing" from one friend's house to another.

Clark said she typically receives requests from shelters, churches and school districts.

"A kid needs a good night's sleep so he can do well in school," she said.

"I had one teen who was pregnant and she was sleeping on an air mattress," Clark said. "Now she has a bed and a dresser."

That teenager, Saryn Smith, 19, received her bed and dresser in December, shortly before her daughter's Feb. 13 birth.

Smith of Stahlstown expects to graduate from Mt. Pleasant Area High School this spring.

"I was in school and one of the counselors started talking to me," Smith said. "She realized I didn't live with my family. She set it up."

"It's a lot better," she said, especially since her daughter was born.

"It's easier to feed her on the bed, so we can both be comfortable," she said.

Smith resides with her boyfriend's family and said they were able to provide her with everything but a bed.

"I borrowed some closet space, but the dresser we were using was his sister's," she said.

It was too small, and she kept some of her belongings in a suitcase.

Smith said she would recommend the program to others.

"If they need a bed, they should look into it," she said.

Westmoreland County Children's Bureau clients have received 23 beds and six dressers since August, bureau administrator Shara Saveikis said.

Approved foster homes, she said, must provide a bed for a child coming into a home.

"Our (original) projection was that we could use 100 (bed vouchers) a year," she said. "It has been beneficial for the families that we serve."

"All of our programs deal with families, so we always have a need," said Tay Waltenbaugh, executive director of Westmoreland Community Action.

Some families may relocate with little useable furniture. Their children's beds may not be in good shape, or they are unable to buy new ones.

"We have been involved in the program since it started," Waltenbaugh said. "We probably average a couple (bed vouchers) a month."

Delivering dreams

"There have been individual supporters and (donations from) churches," Kostenbader said. "We get big boxes of linens."

A West Virginia manufacturer and a local business provide the charity with good deals on mattresses and unfinished dressers, Cunningham said.

"It seems like everyone wants to participate and join in," Kostenbader said. "Sometimes when you are looking to donate, it's hard to determine where the need is."

Cunningham's reward is the recipients' gratitude.

"Three times mothers have broken down and cried and given me kisses," he said.

Some recipients have also tried to pay it forward.

"We have actually had people who have received beds send $10 for the program," Kostenbader said.

Donations may be sent to: Christian Laymen Corps, Attention — "Beds" Program, 258 E. Pittsburgh St., Greensburg, PA., 15601.

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