A St. Paul mom in need finds a way to help others

  • Article by: JEREMY OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 8, 2011 - 12:09 AM

Julia Sonnen's St. Paul nonprofit provides free clothing and other essential items for families.

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Julia Sonnen will open the expanded Families Helping Each Other in St. Paul on Saturday. It provides free clothing and other items.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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Julia Sonnen knows the humiliation felt by impoverished parents who come to places like her Families Helping Each Other warehouse for free clothing or other essentials.

She's one of them.

Despite having built a growing charity in St. Paul, Sonnen lives in poverty with her four children and has needed various forms of public support.

"Welfare does not cover any kind of clothing or diapers," she said. "Especially with the economy right now -- there are so many families who can't afford the basic necessities."

At a grand opening event Saturday for her expanded warehouse on Milton Street, Sonnen hopes to fill more of that void.

The Sonnen family descended into poverty after Julia's now ex-husband returned in December 2007 from a deployment in Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder and other medical problems. The disabilities left him unable to work, and Sonnen was unable to find a new job after moving temporarily from St. Paul to Fort Bragg in Texas to try to help him.

She started collecting clothing and other donated goods after returning to St. Paul as a way to support herself and to provide basic necessities for other needy mothers in a support group.

But soon Sonnen realized there were enough willing donors and enough needy families to expand the operation.

Families Helping Each Other was formed as a formal nonprofit in April 2010. The wealth of donations, and the demand for free goods, prompted the organization to seek a newer, larger warehouse at 757 N. Milton St.

At Saturday's grand opening, Sonnen is hoping donors will fill five bins with new or gently used goods.

"It makes me feel happy that I'm doing something instead of just sitting home and crying," she said, "and that's what I did for about a year and a half."

While thrift shops operated by Goodwill or the Salvation Army are available, even they can be unaffordable to families in economic crisis, she said. Churches offer donated goods, but often in limited supply.

"It's not a comfortable feeling to be sitting there, waiting to get these things, and then there's not much available when it's your turn," she said.

Sonnen, 38, grew up in St. Paul and studied political science at the University of St. Thomas. She owned a restaurant and catering business in Highland Park for 12 years with her first husband before moving with him and living in an affluent neighborhood in Texas until their divorce.

While her second husband was deployed in Iraq, Sonnen worked at a nonprofit, Global Volunteers, in St. Paul. She moved to Texas to get her husband discharged from the Army, hoping his return to St. Paul would help him recover.

But he suffered panic attacks and felt stress around the children. Eventually, the medical problems wiped out their savings, Sonnen said.

Her ex-husband still lives in St. Paul and is earning a master's degree while receiving treatment for PTSD. He still can't spend much time with the children and provides nominal child support because he is unemployed, Sonnen said.

Sonnen hopes her work with the nonprofit will give her employable skills -- and that someone will want to hire a former restaurant owner, trained in political science, who knows how to build a nonprofit from scratch.

Even if she gets a job, she plans to continue in her unpaid role running the charity.

"I'm not trying to do this worldwide," she said. "I'm just trying to do this to help my own little corner."

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744

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