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Restoring hope, dignity to those down on their luck

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Web extra: CNN Hero Sal Dimiceli
  • CNN Hero Sal Dimiceli has devoted his life to helping his fellow Americans
  • Through his nonprofit, he has been able to give desperate people what they need to get by
  • Dimiceli: Recession has put more and more people in need
  • Poverty
  • Philanthropy
  • Wisconsin

(CNN) -- For more than 20 years, CNN Hero Sal Dimiceli has helped people going through hard times.

Through his newspaper column and his nonprofit, the Time Is Now to Help, Dimiceli has assisted about 500 people a year with food, rent, utilities and other necessities. He has also been known to chip in his own money to salvage people's personal belongings -- items that have deep meaning for the people who reach out to him.

CNN Heroes producer Kathleen Toner recently spoke with Dimiceli about his work, which included helping a woman so desperate for cash that she pawned her wedding ring.

Kathleen Toner: You've been doing this for a long time. How has the current economic downturn impacted the people you're helping?

Sal Dimiceli: The recession has hit this area (Lake Geneva, Wisconsin) pretty hard, as it has all across America.

I'm finding more and more people in desperate need. They're struggling to stay in their homes, their apartments. They're struggling to put food on the table and struggling to keep their utilities on.

Behind closed doors, they tell their neighbors they're fine. They'd sooner go in the house and starve. ... Those that are in dire need, they'll sell all their personal belongings to survive. And when they're in that survival mode, they'll sell anything.

Toner: How do you react when you come across someone who's sold something very personal?

Dimiceli: I just recently found someone who sold her wedding band that (she) had for 24 years. When you find out something like that, that's so emotional, I think it's very important to dip into my own pocket to bring that back to her. ... I want to give them their self-esteem back. ... They need to hang onto parts of their life. Sentimental things are very important.

Video: The story of the pawned wedding ring Video

Toner: How did it make you feel to help her get that back?

Dimiceli: It's heartwarming, energizing. ... Feeding (people), turning on the electric, giving them a place to live -- moments like that absolutely keep me going.

It's a lot easier, once somebody gives a helping hand, to get organized to do better. ... We're turning tears into smiles.

Toner: You mentioned "we." Tell me about this volunteer network that you've built.

Dimiceli: The Time Is Now to Help has gotten to a point where we have hundreds of volunteers. Helping is very contagious, because once you do it, you feel so good about helping a fellow human being that you want to do it again.

The volunteers, they give their time helping (the elderly and the disabled) with shopping, bringing people to doctors. ... Sometimes we even provide jobs, because there's always somebody that knows somebody that needs somebody. We connect the dots and get the people so they're helping themselves. ... That's what America's all about

Toner: Why do you do this?

Dimiceli: I grew up in poverty, and as a little boy I stood by and watched my mother cry when our lights were off or we had no food or we were constantly being evicted like gypsies.

I was helpless. I didn't know what to do. And there was something deep inside of me -- I wanted to stop that pain. I am still driven by those moments. ... I want to stop the pain in all those out there that are suffering.

See the full story on CNN Hero Sal Dimiceli:
A 'Dear Abby' for the down and out