By Cecilia Chan
GSN Managing Editor
A Gilbert woman wants to spread compassion and help in the Southeast Valley — especially since her town has the official nickname Kindness USA.
Sharon Kotsonas this week is launching Weekly Collective, a community liaison program that will direct people in need to local resources and connect people who want to help with agencies and organizations.
She says her program is different from what currently exists and is open to those not just in Gilbert but in Mesa, Tempe, Chandler, Queen Creek and Santan.
“I’m surrounded by people who want to help but don’t know how or want to give but don’t know where to give,” said the Realtor. “They don’t want to fall prey to a scam and want a trustworthy source they can trust and engage with. I am transforming the community by inspiring volunteerism.”
How Kotsonas sees that growing is by having volunteers recruit people they know and the “recruits” would in turn convert their acquaintances.
“The second part of it, we have people here in this community that need help and don’t know where to get it or are embarrassed to go and ask for help,” Kotsonas said. “Sometimes people fall on hard times and some need a helping hand or two or three. If we are able to help, it’s our social responsibility to help.”
She said those in need may be intimidated or embarrassed to go to a church or government agency for aid but would be comfortable talking to a neighbor, co-worker or friend.
“Not everyone goes to a church and responds to a church,” Kotsonas said. “They will be more open for help from someone they know.”
She said people will be able to go to the Weekly Collective website to sign up for volunteer activities. The website also will feature a directory of organizations offering help and support. People looking to volunteer can reach out to the same organizations listed.
Kotsonas said volunteers will wear something that identifies them as a Weekly Collective member such as a T-shirt or a pin and they will attend community events and visit schools.
“What sets us apart is we are the community, we are visible,” she said. “We want to be out in the community so we can hear what the need is. We don’t want to do redundant work. We want to do exactly what the community needs. I have a loving, giving and generous church but lot of times we miss the mark.”
Kotsonas said the program will grow in three phases.
The first phase is the launch of the website, which will have an event calendar with weekly volunteer activities and charity drive.
“Every week there will be different programs and agencies we will support,” Kotsonas said.
The 11-year town resident said she is coordinating everything from her home office and using her own funds to get the program up and running. She said she has an advisory board comprised of people such as those from the commercial real estate industry, clergy and health care.
Phase 2, which would come online in two years, calls for community volunteers to be trained to go into deeper service, Kotsonas said.
“They will get fingerprint clearance and (a) background check and we will pair them up with people who need mentors, advocates, someone who is not necessarily a caseworker but someone who will support them by accompanying them to a court date or accompanying them to psychological evaluation or to an intake interview,” she said.
Kotsonas envisions going through the process herself — such as for CASA of Arizona, where court-appointed volunteers act as special advocates for abused and neglected foster children.
“I want to simplify things for people,” she said. “If I were to say to you, I want you to help with this or that and go to CASA and read everything and get back to me, you’ll never read it.”
She plans to go through the process herself to get certified so she can better explain and guide a person who may be interested in doing volunteer work at CASA, she said.
“Once I’ve done it and know the process and know what is required and know what type of expectations the program has I can dilute that in layman’s terms,” she said. “I’m the point of contact.”
Phase 3, which would occur in four years, is to secure a building to allow for more community resources to be offered — such as help with job placement, nonperishable food distribution and activities in the summer for children and at-risk youth, she said.
The 49-year-old Kotsonas’ reason for the program is simple: “I know what it’s like to live in a shelter, not to have enough food and stand in a long line for a WIC (Women, Infants and Children) box and be pregnant for the first time and not have private health care,” she said.
She’s also been laid off and not have enough money to afford transportation. And, she’s had heartache in her life — her 23-year-old son was homeless when he died of a heroin overdose and her other son is in rehab.
“I’ve fallen on hard times so many times,” she said. “I’m (now) fortunate to have a good job and a husband that provides well. Now it’s my turn to help just like the people who’ve helped me.”