Andrew Watkins and his 3-year-old daughter, Alisson, are among the people currently staying at the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency’s emergency shelter for the homeless in Sonora.

The 36-year-old single father gave a powerful speech to the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday about how ATCAA and other social programs have helped him as he works hard to provide a better life for his daughter.

“I would encourage you to not only continue to invest in your community and its health and commerce and vitality, but also its people,” Watkins told the board.

Watkins talked about how he suffered with emotional problems stemming from a difficult childhood that led him down a path to a three-year sentence in prison, where he started to turn his life around.

He’s now completed his probation, paid his fines, got his driver’s license back, regained custody of his daughter, obtained a vehicle that’s registered and insured, and works for the state doing maintenance and groundskeeping at the Mother Lode Fairgrounds in Sonora.

“I stay plugged into the resources available to me, and every day keeps getting better,” he said.

Watkins received a standing ovation from the board at the conclusion of his speech, which he gave during a public hearing on Tuesday for the board to consider providing additional funding to ATCAA’s food bank and homeless shelter.

The agency requested $175,000 for its food bank in Jamestown and $50,000 for its homeless shelter, both of which were at risk of full or partial closure by the end of the year without the additional money.

Sierra Senior Providers Inc. also requested an additional $75,000 so that its Meals on Wheels program could return to a five-day schedule after being cut down to four due to a reduction in federal funding.

All of the requests were approved by a 4-0 vote of the board, with District 5 Supervisor Karl Rodefer absent.

The additional $300,000 came from money generated by subsidized small business loans through the federal Community Development Block Grant program.

Terry Cox, a CDBG consultant for the county, explained that the board had little discretion over using the money for much of anything other than the shelter, food bank and Meals on Wheels programs because rules governing the distribution of funding from such grants.

“Difficult choice, huh?” joked District 4 Supervisor John Gray, which drew laughs from those in attendance.

During the time for public comments, other volunteers and beneficiaries of ATCAA’s programs also spoke about how the assistance has impacted their lives.

Jeanette Schwerdtfeger, 79, of Sonora, spoke after Watkins and said she both receives aid from and volunteers at the ATCAA Food Bank in Jamestown and encouraged the supervisors in attendance to consider volunteering as well.

“We see a lot of sadness and it would break your heart, but I would encourage you to come and visit and be a volunteer for an hour or two,” she said. “I feel like I’m paying back for what ATCAA has done for me by being a volunteer.”

Others who spoke included Deni Avery, food bank coordinator for ATCAA, and Chris Neves, the agency’s homeless shelter coordinator.

Neves said there’s currently 21 people being housed at the 25-bed shelter, including 14 adults and seven children. Four out of 10 single adults currently at the shelter have gotten a job in the past month, two of whom had been unemployed for at least three years each.

Seven of the people at the shelter are approved for housing and waiting for their places to be ready, Neves added.

“Without the shelter and without ATCAA’s help, people on the street are not going to be given this opportunity,” he said. “It’s hard to get a job, it’s hard to get housing, it’s hard to get a lot of help if you don’t have a physical address.”

Avery said that the food bank and its 16 pantry partners have served more than 11,776 individuals more than 55,000 times from January through June. She noted that July’s numbers aren’t tallied yet.

She also said they provide that aid with a small staff and shoestring budget of about $350,000 a year, though more than 500 dedicated volunteers from January to June have provided 14,848 hours equal to $222,274 in paid staff time.

Some county supervisors were nearly in tears as they thanked the people who spoke for sharing their stories and experiences.

“I’m particularly touched today by the testimonies from the people who were here,” said District 3 Supervisor Evan Royce.

District 1 Supervisor Sherri Brennan said it was important for the public to hear about the successes of such programs and appreciated the courage of the people who shared their stories.

District 2 Supervisor Randy Hanvelt, who serves on the ATCAA Board of Directors, told Watkins specifically that he admired his courage and commitment. He said that Watkins’ daughter will have a brighter future because of the work he’s done to better himself.

“It’s these kinds of things that ATCAA and Meals on Wheels does for people,” he said. “It’s a hand up, not a hand out, so this is a no brainer.”

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.

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