Folks in harm’s way are easy to find during the pandemic. They serve the meals and clean the floors, and sometimes they own the restaurants. While many people are back at work, others are still just getting by. For them, the holidays only seem to underline what is lacking.
A housecleaner I met, Betty, had worked her way into a reasonably comfortable life before COVID-19. Betty’s husband had a job doing construction cleanup. They have three kids and a nice apartment near a green park in Huntington Beach. She’s active in her church and in a community leadership program with her city. Her eldest was college bound.
Then their world turned upside down. When the coronavirus sent people home, everybody in her family lost their jobs. Betty hauled out her boxes of Christmas decorations early last year. It was only September, still blazing hot. But Betty was intent on keeping things merry and bright. For her family’s sake.
I sat with her in her sparkling white apartment, beneath a giant sign inscribed: Eat, Drink & Give Thanks.
“We had a broken heart last Christmas, but we were fully decorated,” she says, her sudden peal of laughter surprising me. “I told my kids, ‘We aren’t going to have any gifts this year.’ ”And just as suddenly as she laughed, tears filled her eyes. “You know, your kids expect something at Christmas.” But then she received a gift she didn’t expect. As she took them aside to tell them the bad news, they tried to comfort her. “They all told me they understood.”
Neighbors came to her aid. Neighbors she will probably never meet. Just a few of about 100 people who sign up every year to adopt a family or senior as part of the Hope for the Holidays program from Community Action Partnership Orange County.
Betty was among the thousands in our county, where hospi- tality is a huge industry, who saw their incomes plummet during the pandemic.
“Many in Orange County went from being underemployed to unemployed,” says Gregory C. Scott, president and chief executive officer of Community Action Partnership Orange County. CAP OC, born in 1965 of the War on Poverty, also runs one of the county’s largest food banks, distributes assistance with rent and utilities, operates a diaper bank and the Southwest Community Center in Santa Ana, and has opened three family resource centers to provide services to families in need. Given the group’s size, it was able to make a big impact during the pandemic.
In 2019, the organization distributed 23.3 million pounds of food. In 2020, it distributed 63.2 million pounds—in the face of many of the traditional donated food sources drying up (grocery stores, food drives). Making up the difference: several local angels who gave big donations that enabled food bank officials to buy food. That remains the most coveted item—financial gifts.
But the annual holiday program is largely dependent on individuals, on families and friends coming together to help a family in need. In many years of writing about philanthropy, I’ve met some of these donor families. Each one told me they got more out of it than they gave. One such donor is Irvine resident Chrissy Peterson.
When she was a girl, Peterson’s parents, both U.S. Marines, taught her and her sister about giving. They picked out dolls for low-income military families, and a tradition started that has lasted to this day.
For years, Peterson has rounded up her friends, and together they adopt families recommended by CAP OC. Her favorite part is sitting down on a weekend afternoon with her part of a family’s list and trying to order everything on it. Other families, plus work and friend groups, keep overall costs down by each buying one item.
“Usually, the parents don’t ask for the fun things,” she says. “If the parent doesn’t ask for something fun, we double up on the necessities. If they ask for a sweater, we’ll get them two. If they want shoes, we’ll get Nike and Adidas.”
Some recipients of hope for Holidays also volunteer their time for the program. During the pandemic, Betty helped conduct food drives and delivered meals to seniors for the “Meals on Wheels” program. She also volunteers with the City of Stanton.
This year, Betty still only has two houses to clean, as many of her other clients are still skittish about housecleaners. But her husband is back to work, and her oldest child is studying Spanish and civic and community engagement at UC Irvine.
“I WANT TO TELL ANYONE WHO
IS THINKING OF HELPING WITH THIS PROGRAM THAT WITH THEIR BIG HEART, THEY CAN MAKE ANOTHER HEART HAPPY.”
“I want to tell anyone who is thinking of helping with this program that with their big heart, they can make another heart happy,” Betty says. “It might be something small they’re doing, but for a family like ours, it’s huge. It was priceless on Christmas Day to see my children’s faces filled with joy. That night, we said a prayer, and we thanked a family we will probably never know for their generosity.”
Scott has witnessed plenty of need in his past positions as CEO of New Directions for Homeless Veterans and CEO of the Weingart Center for the Homeless in L.A. But the impact of the pandemic is astounding even to him. What shocked many was how deeply the pandemic affected the middle class.
“We’ve seen the newly vulnerable who have mortgages and car payments but don’t have food. When we saw that group (showing up at food bank events), that was a telltale sign of how traumatic the pandemic has been,” Scott says.
Cap OC, one of the largest social services agencies in the county, is gearing up to help more people for years to come. The needs are sometimes hard to predict. During the pandemic, diapers were in such demand that the agency started its planned diaper bank two months early. There was also funding to help people pay their utilities and rent.
“Post-recovery is going to be several years,” Scott says. “We’re not just going to turn a switch on. The numbers are still spiking. People are still unemployed. People are still working remotely.” Scott sees his organization’s workforce development and financial empowerment programs becoming even more important in the coming months.
There’s dramatic fallout from the pandemic, and it’s exhausting. I think we all know of small businesses struggling to get back to normal, soldiering ahead with fewer people to meet higher demand. Maybe we know of middle-class families who have had to move out of our neighborhoods because their incomes were dependent on the service industry.
But this is a very giving place, and we’ve always remained upbeat as a people in Orange County, through desperate recessions and now this pandemic. Our optimism is one of our best qualities. Unfortunately, sometimes when the sun is shining so brightly on our faces, we are unable to see the people right in front of us who might not have needed us before, but quietly, stoically, desperately, they sure need us now.