'Linn County: Hand in Hand' Facebook group's mission is to help people

From left, Janelle Onken and her daughter Lexi Onken, both of Cedar Rapids, and Christina Van Deusen of Springville sort clothing and household goods to take to a member of the Hand in Hand Facebook group at the Onken’s home in southwest Cedar Rapids on Friday, Jan. 19, 2018. The three women are the moderators of the group, in which members can share their needs and donate items to other members. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
From left, Janelle Onken and her daughter Lexi Onken, both of Cedar Rapids, and Christina Van Deusen of Springville sort clothing and household goods to take to a member of the Hand in Hand Facebook group at the Onken’s home in southwest Cedar Rapids on Friday, Jan. 19, 2018. The three women are the moderators of the group, in which members can share their needs and donate items to other members. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Lexxis Onken, of Cedar Rapids, describes herself as a 22-year-old college student struggling to get by; but, if anything, this only motivates her more.

Onken, who studies social work at Mount Mercy University and works at The Arc of East Central Iowa and Four Oaks, is the inspiration behind Linn County: Hand in Hand. The Facebook group’s mission is to help people and to help people help others.

“Some people have nowhere else to turn,” she said. “I have a passion for helping people. To know something of little meaning to me can make a big difference for someone else ... I go to sleep with a full heart.”

Onken, her mom Janelle Onken, and a third woman, Christina Van Deusen, serve as administrators of the page, which launched in October and has more than 820 members. Members post requests for help or goods and others post what they are able to donate.

The three administrators handle most of the exchanges, along with about a dozen pick ups and deliveries a week, the Onkens estimate.

Posts feature a range of items, such as clothes, baby supplies, school supplies, food, toiletries, household goods, requests or offers for rides, jobs, and more. The administrators maintain a spreadsheet to track which requests have been fulfilled and which are outstanding.

“People go through their closets and clean out their cabinets and post what they have,” Janelle Onken said.

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Some feel too embarrassed to ask for help, so the administrators will make the request on their behalf, the Onkens said. No money is exchanged and casting judgment on requests is forbidden. Posts are vetted to minimize the risk of scams, such as people who accept items and repost them for sale on buy-sell sites.

Jessica Roosevelt, 43, of Cedar Rapids, recently relocated from Arizona with nothing and has been a beneficiary of their kindness. She’s received food, toiletries, clothes, furniture, kitchenware and more.

“It means a lot to me, the outpouring of the selflessness and gratitude,” Roosevelt said. “It’s overwhelming. I’ve never had this sort of kindness in my life. They are really exceptional ladies ... When they came, I said, ‘What do you want from me?’ They said, ‘Nothing. I just want you to be taken care of.’”

Lexxis Onken knows what it’s like to be in need, raised by a single mother, scraping by. Mother and daughter live together and share a truck, which they use to make deliveries. The truck has no heat or a working gas gauge.

“I still struggle along with many other people in this world,” Lexxis Onken said. “A new job has opened my eyes as far as what it means to advocate. I want this group to be for people to simply help one another, with no judgment whatsoever.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3177; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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