12/31/99 – Diane Formoso is chosen “PERSON OF THE YEAR”

(The Lakewood Journal accepted nominations for its annual Person of the Year for 1999. The winner received half of the nominations. Diane Formoso, the founder and driving force behind Caring for Kids, is this year’s clear winner. Here is her story as written by Steve Dunkelberger in the Lakewood Journal.)

She seems to work on a different clock than everyone else. She gets more done than a staff of workers and juggles projects like a circus clown with an armful of flaming bowling pins.

Diane Formoso’s day starts at 4 a.m. when she gets up to take care of her five handicapped foster children before she goes to work. She then spends a shift shuttling deaf and handicapped children to their school in Tacoma. She’s also the Educational Service Personnel of Clover Park president, in charge of running the 550-person classified staff union. She returns messages between bus trips, answers emails during her 10-minute lunches and pitches her Caring for Kids Program to each willing ear with every spare breath.

“Everyday I see little kids in need,” Formoso said. “That’s just not ok with me.”

Her effort to provide for the needy children will soon include a school supply bank for needy children who come from families who can’t afford paper or pencils. Formoso plans to find stores to donate the supplies or buy the items with the proceeds she gets from selling hand-made angels she and a core group of volunteers piece together in their spare time.

Formoso founded Caring for Kids 28 years ago, after a child stepped onto her bus without a coat to shelter her from the winter chill. Formoso simply asked what color coat she would like. She wanted a blue coat. The girl walked away with just what she asked for when Formoso dropped her off at home that afternoon.

“The woman is so busy yet she noticed that this little kid in a crowd didn’t have a coat, and she got her a coat,” Jo Birnie said. “She truly is someone who cares more about the kids than herself. She, by God, is going to do it all if she gets only four hours of sleep.”

Caring for Kids started small. It provided 37 families with holday food baskets in 1992, the first year it had formal, non-profit status. Formoso vowed to help more families the following year. The effort grew.

“She’s like bubble gum on your shoe. You just can’t get rid of her,” Birnie said. “She just pushed and pushed until we couldn’t do anything but get involved, and it’s been growing ever since.”

The non-profit group operates under the umbrella of the Uniserv Council of unions that represents teachers and classified staff of the Clover Park, Steilacoom and University Place school districts. Caring for Kids has no paid staff. Every penny goes to help children and their families. One of the group’s two big events came just this month, when 540 families received food, gifts, clothes, hygiene products and toys at the Caring for Kids Holiday Fair. The second big event is the Ready to Learn Fair held each August at Park Lodge Elementary School. That effort provides school supplies, medical exams and clothing for needy children before they go back to school.

Formoso is a networking machine. She brings in donations from businesses, civic groups, foundations and local residents. It is, by all but a few accounts, the most comprehensive and wide-spread charity in Lakewood that operates under one flag.

“She won’t turn down anything that’s free,” said Lyle Attebery, the Clover Park teacher’s union president and 15-year friend of Formoso. “She has a heart bigger than Lakewood. I don’t know how else to say it. She is the most genuine person I’ve ever met. She just recruits you and you feel a part of it.”

Formoso’s efforts touch thousands of needy people each year. Thousands more walk away from a day of volunteering with a feeling of being part of something special. That feeling almost ended suddenly this year.

Caring for Kids submitted a request for $20,000 from the City of Lakewood’s grant process this year. It was one of 22 requests. Only six programs got turned away empty handed when the grant awards were announced in late November. One of those was Caring for Kids. Citizens of Lakewood’s choice for their person of the year apparently isn’t the City of Lakewood’s choice.

“Caring for Kids didn’t get one dime,” Birnie said. “That was just devastating to her. There is just no way they should have turned her down.”

Formoso and others felt frustrated to the point of entertaining the idea of shutting down the whole operation. That notion quickly died, however.

The lack of city funding for Caring for Kids was not a matter of ill will, Lakewood Human Resources Director Debbie Young said. It was a matter of confusion.

The nine Lakewood residents who decided which programs received dollars or not couldn’t figure out why Caring for Kids needed the money. The grant application detailed what the program did but not what the grant money would go toward.

“It looked like we were funding the whole program,” Young said. “There was just some confusion there. She does do wonderful things in the community, and I think people recognize that.”

The city did give Caring for Kids a few hundred surplus toys it received from a McNeil Island wooden toy making program. Caring for Kids survived without the grant. The effort continues to grow despite the setback.

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