08/09/04 — Pennies benefit community

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Pennies benefit community

By Becky Barclay
Published in News on August 9, 2004 1:59 PM

A lot more Wayne County people will receive much needed help thanks to the generosity of those attending a benefit dinner for Pennies From Angels.

More than 100 attended the fund-raiser at Pleasant Grove Free Will Baptist Church.

According to Helen Harwood, founder of Pennies From Angels, the dinner raised $3,310. And $544 of that money was in pennies and other coins.

This was the third dinner to benefit the nonprofit fund. It started when Mrs. Harwood turned 60 and wanted to do something special to raise money for Pennies From Angels.

"The 60th birthday is a landmark, especially for someone like me who has survived cancer and diabetes," she said. "I decided to have a birthday dinner and accept donations to the fund instead of birthday gifts."

The first two dinners raised a total of $5,000.

Mrs. Harwood said that people have come to expect the dinner. "When they came into the dinner, they brought jars, coffee cans and big plastic containers filled with pennies. And I didn't ask for any of it. People just do it.

"As people were leaving, some gave me donations at the door. When I got home, I had among the money, two $100 bills and had no clue who gave them to me."

The New Harmony Singers provided entertainment.

During the dinner, Mrs. Harwood related a few stories of where Pennies From Angels funds have gone and how they have helped.

One story she told was about a young man who moved here from another state with his wife and two children. She said he started having health problems and was diagnosed with cancer.

"When I met them, they had 13 cents on them," said Mrs. Harwood. "That's all they had in this world. They hadn't been here long enough for the wife to find a job yet. Then when her husband was diagnosed with cancer and given six months to live, she couldn't work."

Mrs. Harwood said they had rented a place, but were going to be evicted. Pennies From Angels helped with the rent. At Christmas, the fund provided food and toys for the children.

"That was eight years ago and that man is still living," said Mrs. Harwood. "And his wife is working. All they needed was a little encouragement and a little bit of hope to see them through that rough time. Pennies From Angels was there."

Another incident involved a young man who was in a car accident and paralyzed from his waist down. He was living with his cousin and his cousin's wife and renting a wheelchair, but it was getting to be too expensive.

"The cousin had to quit work and stay home and take care of the man while only the wife worked," Mrs. Harwood said. "That made it rough on them. At Christmas time, Pennies From Angels helped them."

The man needed a wheelchair so he wouldn't have to rent one, but Mrs. Harwood said Pennies From Angels didn't have that kind of money.

"One day I was at a second-hand store looking for a coat for another patient, and there was a wheelchair," she said. "And it was the exact kind that the man needed. I asked the store manager if she could discount it, and she did. We got it. That was on a Friday."

Mrs. Harwood didn't know it at the time, but that same night there was a singles' group meeting and a member of her church from Selma went to it just that one night. Another woman talked about Pennies From Angels, and the group took up a donation.

Sunday morning that same women challenged the church to take up a donation for the fund, which it did.

"Between what the singles' group and the church gave, I got back every penny of what I had spent for the wheelchair plus $30 more," said Mrs. Harwood. "Since then, things like that have happened over and over and over."

Mrs. Harwood said the benefit dinner gets bigger and bigger every year. "We just had a good time. It was an awesome night."

The fund started in 1993 when Mrs. Harwood's sister and brother-in-law were killed in a car accident. They had saved pennies for several years in a big jar.

Nothing was done with that jar of pennies until one day Mrs. Harwood, as a Cancer Society volunteer, was helping a boy who had a brain tumor. She was in contact with the boy's mother off and on, and one day the mother called Mrs. Harwood to tell her the Make A Wish Foundation was sending the family to Disney World.

Mrs. Harwood found out the boy needed a pair of sneakers. There were just enough pennies in that jar to buy the boy a pair of sneakers, she said.

The sky is the theme for Pennies From Angels because when Mrs. Harwood's sister and brother-in-law were killed, there was a roll of film in their camera that contained a picture of just the blue sky with white clouds.

Mrs. Harwood said that more than $1,000 in pennies alone was donated throughout this past year to the fund. She said people go to Southeastern Medical Oncology Center, where she now works as a patient advocate, with little plastic bags with pennies in them.

"Each one may not be much, but when you put them all together, it is a lot," she said.