WENTZVILLE — Near the small indoor pool surrounded by rooms at the Budget Inn, there's a new Christmas tree with ornaments decorated by children who call the motel home.
The tree and its decorations are a symbol of the outpouring of support since a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story about motels that have become home to the homeless. Paul Kruse, founder of First Step Back Home, says readers have donated about $30,000 to his agency in the last two weeks.
Amy Curran Piglowski, 35, of Wentzville said she was shocked when she learned of the problem. She and her husband, Todd, went to the Budget Inn, spoke with those living there and brought them $200 worth of food.
"I can't just sit back and do nothing," Piglowski said.
For several years, motels have housed St. Charles County's chronically struggling, homeless and fragile families. But the recession has worsened the homelessness problem in a county where just one small shelter exists for families and single parents. And donations to organizations that help have been down.
Because of a shortage of shelters, Kruse's organization and other charities and churches pay for homeless people to stay in motels until they can find work or other housing.
Piglowski, owner of an insurance agency, decided to forgo holiday gifts this year for her clients so her family could help the homeless instead. "We are not wealthy, but do OK for ourselves. It's a struggle, but not like those families in that hotel."
Piglowski told her neighbors, who bought a Christmas tree for the motel. The group bought wooden ornaments for the children to color and decorate the tree, along with pizza and presents.
It was a welcome and comforting gesture for Tobi Mason, 39, her fiancé and her daughters — 5-year-old twins and a 10-year-old. They have lived in the motel for about a month after leaving a mobile home they were renting in Winfield. Mason lost her job and her car.
"When those little girls came running down, my heart just broke," said Piglowski, who is also raising money by posting a note in her Facebook status and asking friends to donate $1.
Many others have donated money, time or food.
Joe and Cherri Trantham's family will have a roof over their heads on Christmas because of donations. People stopped by or called the motel to help pay for several weeks of the bill for them and their two young children.
"I was overwhelmed," Cherri Trantham said. "I couldn't stop crying, and when I did, someone was knocking on our door again offering help."
Kruse says the recent support means he will be able to help more people get their lives back on track. The donations put his organization closer to its year-end goals.
At this time last year, First Step Back Home had received about $95,000 in donations. With recent contributions, his total so far for 2009 is about $80,000.
"The blessings have been pouring in," Mason said.