Shelly and Mellie: Seattle smilers scoop Real Change Vendors of the Year

Earlier this month Real Change News celebrated its 22nd Annual Breakfast and fundraiser in Seattle’s Washington State Convention Center. Keeping custom with previous years, the Vendor of the Year Award was the main event presented to one male and one female vendor.

Nominated by the community and voted by among 700 fellow vendors, Shelly Cohen and Mellie Kaufman were awarded the coveted prize.

Shelly Cohen and Mellie Kaufman were awarded the prize of 2016 Real Change News Vendors of the Year. Credit: Real Change News

In a short video shown before being presented with his award, vendor and school crossing guard, Shelly said: “I’ve learned a lot being involved with Real Change about the homeless situation. There are situations that come up where people need medical assistance or emotional support. They need services.

“One of the most exciting things I am involved in is the [Real Change] editorial committee. We get together as a group and brainstorm ideas from the newspaper. A lot of the ideas come from a customer base. Customers… that’s what Real Change is all about. When people pass my way, whether they buy a paper or not, it’s about giving them a smile and getting smiles back.”

Two days before her 19th birthday, female winner Mellie was hit by a car causing her to suffer amnesia for two years following the accident.

In the summer of 1999, Mellie was walking the streets of Seattle, not knowing who she was. Spending that period of her life just trying to get by, her memory eventually returned. Known locally as ‘the happy lady’, Mellie now has a home having sold Real Change News over a period of 16 years.

In her own short video, Mellie said: “My customers say, ‘you’re the reason I get off the bus and come to work every morning because you’re here and smiling all the time.’ Now after a while, I wanted to get more involved [at Real Change] to see if I could have a voice.”

“No person should be homeless in America, that is not fair. We should all be able to live our dream and live our lives”

The morning event was hosted by Real Change board member Chris Genese.

In his opening comments, Chris said: “When I think of poverty and what it’s like to live on the margins of society, it’s not just about having the ability to put a roof over your head, trying to have three square meals a day, or healthcare and material things… just as importantly the thing that’s hurts the most is that you lose respect from the rest of society.

“I think that at Real Change, in every facet of our work, we address that. We are about building dignity and a voice for those who are most marginalised by society.”

Managing director Alan Preston presented Real Change’ first ever Lifetime Service Award to Jim Douglas, recognising both his law career committed to helping disabled and homeless benefit claimants – and contribution of 1,500 volunteer hours to Real Change in the past four years.

Also highlighted during the event was the total of more than 250 volunteers who served 5,300 hours in 48 unique roles for Real Change in the last 12 months. More than one-third of volunteer time is dedicated to the street paper.

“We envision a just, caring and inclusive community, where people are no longer marginalised by racism and classism and have the means to live with dignity”

Other awards included Jenn Romo, Real Change volunteer coordinator, presenting Khishaana Folger and Susan Storer Clark with a Volunteer of the Year award for their contribution to the news room and sales desk teams respectively.

The Change Agent Award went was presented by Real Change founding director Tim Harris to the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project, which engages Seattle University School of Law students in effective legal and policy research, analysis, and advocacy work to advance the rights of homeless people.

Joining them was Operation Jungle Defense, who were commended for the “visionary and courageous organising,” behind their own Homeless Right Advocacy Project.