Social worker helps homeless families find homes, furnishingsThe first night in their Grand Forks apartment, Joe Rodriguez-Chapman’s four children slept altogether sideways across a double bed, even though there were enough beds for each of them. He and his four children now have a permanent address because John Fuher was on a mission. A social worker at Valley Middle School where Desirae and Aaron are enrolled, Fuher has been helping find homes — and furnishings — for families down on their luck.
By: Pamela Knudson, Grand Forks Herald
The first night in their Grand Forks apartment, Joe Rodriguez-Chapman’s four children slept altogether sideways across a double bed, even though there were enough beds for each of them.
Rodriguez-Chapman laughs at the thought of it.
The kids were so used to sleeping in a cramped motel room, it took a while to wean them apart, he said.
The family had been living in several Grand Forks motels, sometimes sleeping in shifts, moving from place to place for a year. They settled into their two-bedroom apartment on the city’s Near North Neighborhood about two weeks ago.
“I’m so happy,” said Rodriguez-Chapman, as he held his son, Angel Rodriguez-Vondal, close at his side. “I can sleep on the couch.”
He and his four children now have a permanent address because John Fuher was on a mission. A social worker at Valley Middle School where Desirae and Aaron are enrolled, Fuher has been helping find homes — and furnishings — for families down on their luck.
So far, he said, the donors and volunteers he enlisted have helped 40 to 45 families.
Fuher’s mission began seven years ago with a mother and her two children who stepped off a train in Grand Forks, each holding just a suitcase, pillow and blanket, he said.
The mother felt they had to flee a bad situation in St. Paul. Homeless in Grand Forks, they would ride the city bus for hours to stay warm and pass time.
Fuher said he worked with the Housing Authority to get them a three-bedroom apartment. “Then, I thought, I’ve got to furnish the doggone thing.”
Because the school district employs thousands, he said, he hit on the idea of sending an email asking everyone for help. Donations poured in, filling his garage and storage shed, he said. “I said ‘no’ to nothing.”
Fuher enlisted kids from Valley Middle School to help pick up the donations.
“We filled that apartment with a Christmas tree, lights, a microwave — everything, down to the dustpan. We gave them absolutely everything. When we finished, the family was overwhelmed — they were crying, hugging,” he said.
“We just went on from there. We haven’t stopped since,” he said.
A new life
Fuher has known Rodriguez-Chapman for 30 years, he said. He’s seen the family struggle.
For most of the past year, Fuher said he’s been helping Rodriguez-Chapman navigate the sometimes difficult process of qualifying for housing and other public assistance available to families in need.
At times, things didn’t go well and Rodriguez-Chapman’s frustration mounted, Fuher said. “When life’s not easy, you fight for everything you need. You have to claw and scratch for everything you get. You’re just angry. Sometimes that anger gets pervasive in your life.”
With Fuher’s help, things are looking up for Rodriguez-Chapman and his children, Desirae, 14; Aaron, 13, and twins Angel and Alica, 7, all surnamed Rodriguez-Vondal.
“Now that I don’t have to worry about where we’re going to stay, the next step is work and a vehicle,” Rodriguez-Chapman said. He’s looking for employment in tile- and carpet-installing, he said.
He’s glad his kids now have their own rooms, daughters in one, sons in the other, he said, and a yard to play in.
Alica said she likes having six rooms to live in, having a bathtub, and being able to walk or bike to school.
Angel said his bed is “real comfy.”
“We have pots and pans now, which is really great, I can actually cook,” Rodriguez-Chapman said, beaming. “I like to cook.”
Unlike other projects that Fuher has been involved in, this one didn’t involve hundreds of donors. Rodriguez-Chapman’s apartment has been completely furnished — from the furniture to the kitchen utensils — from belonging left behind by Ron Wilkening, a Valley Middle School teacher who died in March.
“My kids talked about him very highly. It’s special that they knew him,” Rodriguez-Chapman said.
Wilkening’s sisters, who live in the Twin Cities, were planning to go through their brother’s belongings when they were told about Fuher’s efforts to help Rodriguez-Chapman’s family. They donated almost everything to the family.
Fuher later wrote to the sisters, “(Joe) and the family have experienced numerous hardships throughout life, but you cannot find nicer, more polite children anywhere.”
Desirae wrote a thank-you to the sisters, saying, “You saw a family, my family, actually that needed help. And you went above and beyond and did something that I didn’t think would really happen. You made me and my siblings very happy.
“You made us know that there are others, besides our own families, that care about us.”
One of Wilkening’s sisters had asked Fuher if she and her family could give gifts to Rodriguez-Chapman’s children next Christmas.
“When I told Joe, he said, ‘They already gave me the greatest gift they could possibly give,’” Fuher said. “Sometimes, good things just don’t end.”
Reach Knudson at (701) 780-1107; (800) 477-6572, ext. 107; or send e-mail to email@example.com.