Nikki Thelin helps those in need – in a big way. Born in Centralia, the W.F. West High School graduate has created a website phenomenon. LowIncomeRelief.com is a free information service that connects low income Americans to benefits, programs and resources in their local communities. It’s exploded since its inception, now helping millions of people each year.
We connected with Thelin to learn more about her work and what drives her to help others.
How did you come up with this idea and how did you get started?
In 2007, my husband was medically discharged from the US Army. It was a really difficult time for us. As soon as we were medboarded, we found ourselves living on the wrong coast, with no income and no idea what we were going to do next.
Since my husband’s MOS had been tech-related, it made sense to go back home to Washington State. We drove thousands of miles back to Washington in the hope of getting our lives back in order. It didn’t take us very long to find jobs but it can take a long time to save up enough for move-in costs (especially in King County) when you’re earning minimum wage. Our family couldn’t house us for very long and we eventually faced an impossible decision: We had two weeks to find housing or we were going to be homeless.
I absolutely panicked. I was desperate for a solution. I stayed at the library from open to close, searching online for any resources that could help us. It was the first time I really paid attention to things like low income housing or Section 8. I had never needed that kind of assistance before so I hadn’t paid much attention. I was amazed at how many resources I was able to find, once I knew where to look.
Within just a few days, I connected with three different charities that pledged money toward our move-in expenses. Our application fee and security deposit were completely covered. All we had to do was pay the first month’s rent.
Within a week, we were living in a beautiful, newly-constructed low income housing unit in Issaquah. We were mere minutes from both of our jobs. Once we overcame the steep move-in costs, we were able to maintain the rent and put our lives back together.
After this experience, I gained something of a reputation as a “resource guru” and I was constantly asked to help people find the resources they needed to pay rent, utility bills or other expenses. I love helping people and I got a lot of practice.
After the 12th time I was asked to find help with housing in Tacoma, I had a sudden realization: I could help more people, more efficiently if I just put all the information online in a format that was easy to find and easy to use.
That’s when I purchased the LowIncomeRelief.com domain and started building this information service. I had always been a writer and I’ve always loved helping people, so I quite literally have my dream job.
What were some hurdles you ran into along the way and how did you overcome them?
Honestly, the biggest challenge that I have faced is that I’m vastly outnumbered. For the first year or so after Low Income Relief went viral, I was working alone and scrambling to serve 10,000+ people every month. I couldn’t keep up because the information requests came in much faster than I could research and write-up the information. It was overwhelming.
Fortunately, the attention helped the website become profitable very quickly. I’ve also connected with some very talented individuals who are just as dedicated to the cause as I am. We have a fantastic team of freelancers now that constantly research and produce information for our audience.
The other major challenge I face is trolls. A significant number of people absolutely hate what we do. They aggressively harass our readers and viewers who leave comments on our site and social media pages. I’ve learned the hard way that you can’t reason with these people, so we delete a lot of comments. Thankfully, I have a rock star assistant, Riley, who manages to keep the worst of it under control.
Low Income Relief has grown exponentially since you started. What do you think helped achieve this?
Low Income Relief earns six figures per year. We’ve had several people, including some big-name bloggers, offer six and seven figures for the business. We have no intention of selling but it’s still very exciting.
We serve nearly three million people per year right now. We have seen rapid month-over-month growth in the amount of people we’re able to reach. It’s just incredible.
Of course, I place a lot of emphasis on search engine optimization and social media marketing so that our information is easy to find. I’ve also prioritized ease-of-use in the site design. It’s made a huge difference for our audience.
What are you most proud of in this work?
I never cease to be amazed by what a difference our work is making in the lives of others. We receive so many overwhelmingly grateful comments from people who have personally benefited from the research we’ve done.
I have a special file filled with testimonials, thank you notes and pictures that I’ve received from our audience. Whenever I’m having a hard day, or struggling to find proper sources for an article, or just overwhelmed by negative feedback, I look through that file. It’s a powerful reminder of why we do what we do here at Low Income Relief.
What are you working on now?
We are currently working on developing a YouTube presence and expanding into other social media channels. It’s a little overwhelming because I vastly prefer writing over marketing.
What is your vision for Low Income Relief in the future?
We are working toward making Low Income Relief a one-stop resource for anyone who is struggling. Eventually, we’ll have a map-based resource directory and enough people on our team that we can immediately respond to individual requests for assistance.
Could you share a few of your favorite stories from work?
My absolute favorite moments are when I receive messages and pictures from people who have benefited from our content. We’ve helped people get free school supplies and keep their utilities connected. We’ve helped people find grants to fix their homes or build disability modifications. My personal favorite, though, are all the pictures I receive of happy kids who are enjoying their first-ever day at the zoo or Children’s Museum because we helped them get free admission.
Here are a few of the things in that file I mentioned earlier:
“Low Income Relief has helped me make it last year with the help they gave me for my gas and electric bills. I had just had my kidney transplant and I couldn’t pay all my bills.” -Denise S., Illinois
“Having been in a very upper-class marriage, I never needed to worry about home, food, car, vet care, etc. I came across your page at the right time. As a 58-year-old survivor of domestic violence, I found others willing to share information and let me know I wasn’t alone, nor did I need to be ashamed because I needed help. Thank you a thousand times over.” -Mary H., California
“Low Income Relief showed me that I can get benefits to places I didn’t even know about! We’ve been to the zoo, shopping trips and a lot of other things in our area this summer. It’s been very beneficial with one going into college and one into first grade. I needed to make lots of memories and save money too!” -Star F., Florida
“Low Income Relief has been a true blessing to my family. They helped us when we had no one else to help. I had lost my job, was pregnant and my husbands’ job was out of work at the time. They guided me in the right direction so I could keep food on the table and a roof over our heads.” -Brandi G.
“I have learned so much from Low Income Relief about all the benefits of having an EBT card… One of my favorite benefits of having an EBT card is that I can buy fresh produce and seeds. With just a few cents and some hard work and patience, I now have a beautiful garden that consists of grapes, tomatoes, corn, squash, cucumber, pears and a lot of other fresh fruits and vegetables. My garden supplies more than enough for my family and I, so with all the extra food I grew, I donate it to other families in need.” -Coral B., Maryland
That’s very inspirational.
I absolutely and wholeheartedly believe that getting the right help at the right time can make all the difference in someone’s life. I cannot imagine where our family would be today if we hadn’t received that help when we needed it most. That’s why Low Income Relief exists: to help people find the right help at the right time.
Low-income Lewis County residents can find local resources and information by visiting lowincomerelief.com/category/washington-state.