March 29, 2004 -- A contemporary tale of two cities is taking place in Pembroke, Ill., and Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.
One city is a community entrenched in poverty. The other is thriving in plenty. The two are now united through a mission of hope that began when a mom from Hastings picked up the morning paper.
"I was reading the New York Times on a Sunday about a rural community, Pembroke, Ill., that was so profoundly poor that people's basic life essential needs were not being met," said Pamela Koner.
"I walked in off my deck and proclaimed to my family: 'I've just read this story that moved me in such a significant way, I have to do something.' And it was very interesting. It was a little otherworldly, I have to say. And I'm not a very spiritual person."
Something from the story touched her personally and resulted in three crucial steps.
"I walked in, I said I have to do something," Koner said. "The next step was, I have an idea. And the third one was — is family-to-family."
Finding a Way to Help
That morning, Koner began a series of phone calls that would lead her to Pembroke's church pastors, Lisa and John Dyson, themselves dedicated to uplifting their community.
"Pamela Koner called and talked to my husband and she wanted to find a way to help," said Lisa Dyson.
The conversation was straightforward.
"I said 'What do you need?' And he said, 'I was hoping for a miracle.' And I said, 'Well, I'm not a miracle but what do you need?,' " Koner recalled. "And he said, 'Well our people here the last week of the month, the food pantry runs out. Our people here are starving. I said, 'I've got an idea. How about if I find a family in my community to adopt a family in yours and we create family-to-family?' And that's how it began."
Lisa Dyson said that the connection is stronger than just receiving gifts.
"For a lot of our families that receive on this end, it's not just the fact that somebody's sending them something," she said. "But it's a personal connection with somebody that they know cares from somewhere miles away that they may have never met."
The families also communicate with one another.
"One of the large commitments on both ends of this is that we letter write back and forth," Koner said. There are hundreds of letters from families in Pembroke to families in Hastings.
A Growing Network
What began with matching eight families has grown into 150 families in each community, linked across the miles. Once worlds apart, they are now virtual neighbors.
"The commonalities are humanity," Koner said. "And there are different tweaks and differences, and certainly poverty creates a whole other sort of life experience. But to sort of scrape all that away and we're all the same."
The enthusiasm spreads beyond the matched families. A Hastings grocery store has set up a section devoted to "family-to-family" items. Federal Express covers the shipping of all boxes.
"It's not an anonymous giving," Koner said. "It's an envisioning of someone on the other end getting something of yours. And I think that, that's pretty amazing."
Once a month, in Koner's home run after-school care program, Hastings children gather to receive and decorate the dozens of boxes, the final touch of grace before the boxes are shipped away to new found friends
"You learn how to share with people who don't have as much as you," said 9-year-old Isaac Shimsky-Agosto.
A girl in the program said giving makes her feel good.
"It makes me feel, I'm really happy inside that some other kids who don't have what we have finally get it and it's really nice," said Zoe Szoke, 10.
Learning to Give
The invaluable lesson is in what people get from giving, Koner said.
"It's not in the talking, the doing, writing a check," Koner said. "There's no exchange of money in any of this. It's all giving of oneself.
"It expands the border. You know, who's my neighbor?" Lisa Dyson said. "I have a neighbor that's way on the other side of the country and I think that's beautiful."
It may not be a sweeping change, but it makes a difference, Koner said.
"What we're trying to do is create possibilities," she said. "So I would say the end result of this is really unknown and I don't know that we've made a huge change. I know and believe that we've created possibility."
Learn more about the project between the two towns by going to www.family-to-family.com.