Florence Shorter and her five grandchildren still live in a cramped, cockroach-infested apartment in Northeast Washington. She worries about the children coming and going amid the drug boys on the street. She hears the gunfire at night, saw a man bleeding to death on the corner last month and fears she can't protect the children.
But, for now at least, she doesn't fear her grandchildren will go hungry.
In July--after a Washington Post story about childhood hunger that featured Chris West, Shorter's 8-year-old grandson--scores of readers responded. Some sent boxes of food and clothes for the children. One woman cooked a roast. Others sent new mattresses for the children, a stroller for the baby, a refrigerator for Shorter and a dining room table--even though there is no room in the crowded apartment for a table.
Cash in envelopes poured in: $20 here, $50 there. One woman said her family talked about the Shorter family's plight over dinner, and her children emptied out their piggy banks. A woman from New York wrote a large check.
Many who went to Shorter's apartment to bring her food were appalled at the run-down one-bedroom apartment where three--and sometimes four--people sleep on the living room floor. Monica Testa, of the Capital Area Food Bank, said the organization has been trying to help Shorter move to a better apartment with government assistance but has hit "a sea of red tape."
Yesterday, when told of Shorter's housing situation, a spokeswoman for Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said the mayor will help Shorter's family find a better place to live.
"The mayor has said many times that we need to reach out and support our most vulnerable citizens," said Peggy Armstrong, Williams's spokeswoman. "Here is a grandmother trying to raise her grandchildren. The city has a responsibility to help her solve her housing problem, and we will."
At 45, Shorter is struggling to raise her daughter's five children, who range in age from 11 months to 15 years. Shorter's daughter is a crack cocaine addict who spends most days on the streets. Shorter herself is a recovering addict, clean for five years after two decades of "drinking and drugging." She is in a job-training program, works in the food bank's warehouse and is taking classes at Trinity College in hopes of getting a GED.
"I'm overwhelmed with the kindness from all of these people I don't know," Shorter said. "I don't know how to thank everyone, especially the people who sent me things but didn't leave their names."
Along with the donations, dozens of readers contacted Shorter personally, saying they wanted to become part of her children's lives on a permanent basis.
"The response was terrific," said Virginia Rodriguez, The Post's director of public relations. "People really opened up their hearts and wanted to help this family. There were at least 100 phone calls." Another 100 calls and e-mails came in to the newsroom.
"I read [the story] late at night as my two kids, ages 3 and 1, slept upstairs in absolute comfort, with full stomachs, and felt outraged at the plight of the family and children you portrayed," wrote one reader. The callers were sent to the Capital Area Food Bank, which itself was barraged with calls and offers of money and help. Several want to mentor Shorter's grandchildren, take them shopping and check on them regularly.
Nearly giddy with all of the donations she has received, Shorter said she worries about other needy families in the District whose daily struggles to feed their children have not been publicized. She has shared the donated food with her neighbors but said she knows there are thousands of children in the city who are suffering.
According to the Capital Area Food Bank, 45,000 D.C. children are at risk of going hungry every day. Many, like Chris West, depend on U.S. government-sponsored free breakfasts and lunches offered at schools for their main meals, while mothers and grandmothers like Shorter struggle to scrape together dinner by taking buses to food pantries and pooling food stamps with meager salaries.
One man who came to Shorter's assistance owns his own business and asked to be identified only as David from Northern Virginia. He took Shorter's family to Target, Old Navy and Shoppers Food Warehouse last week. Among other things, he bought school supplies and clothes for Chris and his older brother, Denard, a new backpack for one of their sisters and a new outfit for Shorter.
For the benefactor, Shorter and her grandchildren represented a chance to help a needy family directly, rather than write a check to an organization and never know exactly where the money went.
"I was looking for an opportunity to help someone who was already trying to help herself and take a family under my wings," David said. "There were a lot of basic things she needed--mattresses, sheets, towels. Her living conditions are abysmal."
Shorter called the shopping trip "incredible."
"It was the first time ever in my life I didn't have to look at price tags and say, 'I can't get that,' " Shorter said. "He told me I could get anything I wanted. I've never experienced anything like that. . . . I thought, maybe I've died and this is a dream. He just called today and said he would bring over money for my granddaughter to get shoes at Payless. Oh, my goodness, wake me up from this."