For Margo Lopez’s family, the holidays last year were something to simply get through. I suspect many others feel that way this year.
Lopez’s family of seven was suddenly living off a single income from her job as a warehouse packer, and it looked like there would be no decorations in their spare Anaheim bungalow, no gifts for the five kids, no holiday meal. They’d all just received news: Dad Adrian, only 38, was diagnosed with cancer of the brain and spine.
Twenty-five miles away in Rancho Santa Margarita, Janene Simpson was feeling something less than festive, with her family facing another Christmas of too much stuff.
“We looked at each other, and we said, ‘We have everything we need. What can we do to help others?’ ” says Simpson, a Broadway veteran (“Cats,” “Les Miserables,” and “Pirates of Penzance”) and the matriarch of a blended family. Her husband, Bob, works in the mortgage fraud industry. She teaches at an arts school near Palm Springs.
Soon, everyone in their extended family got her email: How would you feel about adopting a family in need, instead of giving each other presents?
“Hands down, everybody said, ‘This is where we should put our money and our help,’ ” Simpson tells me.
What followed was a deluge of gifts that altered a stranger’s life—and left the Simpson family changed as well.
“Don’t make us out to be heroes,” Simpson says. “It was just something we did, and we’ll do it again. We were amazed by how generous our (adult) kids were. And that was the blessing. Seeing the generosity of our own children.”
She contacted the Community Action Partnership Orange County, which runs an adopt-a-family program, among many other services, including one of the largest food banks in Southern California.
I visited the Orange County Food Bank’s weekly Saturday COVID-19 distribution at MainPlace Mall in Santa Ana, and I was a little surprised at the high quality of some of the cars in line for help. A gleaming white SUV’s trunk glided open soundlessly to swallow a box containing a gallon of milk, onions, watermelon, chicken breasts, and other commodities.
“We’ve had Range Rovers through here. We had a guy in a Tesla. You look at them, and you think, ‘C’mon, you guys don’t look like you need it.’ But then you notice they’re crying as they come through the line. You see a kid in the back seat holding up a thank-you sign,” says Andre Roberson, president of Power of One Foundation, who has been involved in distributing food to the needy in Santa Ana for 15 years.
Food bank director Mark Lowry called Roberson one of his “rising stars,” who reached out to help even as some of the more conventional partners had to close. Lowry left a lucrative research analyst job 33 years ago to run a food bank and has never looked back. (Full disclosure: He has been my friend the same amount of time, the kind of friend who comes to your kids’ recitals.)
Lowry made my jaw drop when he said that more than 250 charities that did food distribution before the virus all closed, some permanently. Thousands of people lost their jobs overnight. The county went from 2.8 percent to 18 percent unemployment by mid-March.
“Many people in hospitality were not earning a living wage,” he says. “People were already living on the brink of poverty. A lot of people went without any income for months.”
When the pandemic hit earlier this year, the food bank lost most of its volunteers.
Overnight, its cupboards went bare. There were no churches donating. There were no Scout collections. No big mail carrier drive. The grocery industry, overwhelmed with increased business, wasn’t donating surplus anymore. Every month remains a scramble, though the food bank has pieced together different solutions monthly, from soliciting donors and outright buying the food to stretching federal food donations, which have ranged from a bag of oranges and a bag of potatoes to more comprehensive meals.
Meanwhile, the need is three times the norm. The need for donors to adopt other families this month is also expected to grow exponentially.
Lopez and Simpson each hope to participate in the program this year.
Margo Lopez talked with me by pulling her car over to the side of the road. She said it was her only free time.
She was sandwiching me in between her husband’s chemotherapy session and a visit to her mother to make sure she has what she needs. Her two older boys, who helped support the family, lost their jobs because of the pandemic.
“It’s really hard sometimes,” she says. “I can’t tell anyone in my house how hard it is. I can’t tell my husband. I can’t tell my kids.” She was crying. “I have to be the strong woman, to show everyone that everything’s OK, even though there are times when I just don’t know what to do, when I want to give up. But I have to keep going. I thank God at the end of the day for the strength He gives me. For seeing my kids healthy.”
She said she couldn’t believe it last year when, a few weeks before Christmas, the Simpson family started carting things into her tiny house, completely emptying a minivan.
“We expected maybe a shirt for my 14-year-old, a little ball for my 8-year-old,” Lopez says. Instead, there was a new refrigerator. A television. A tablet for the teenager to use for school. Headsets, boxes of new clothes, a crib, a twin bed, mattresses and bedding, the latest toys. And much more.
“But it wasn’t about the stuff,” Simpson says. “It was about human touch. It was about someone showing up for her when she was way down.”
Human touch. It sounds like a century ago. But even in the year of awkward elbow bumps, it is possible to reach out and touch another’s life. Orange County’s neediest people are often hidden. And sometimes they’re even hidden behind the wheel of a Mercedes.
“Really the blessing becomes yours,” Simpson says. “You just walk away from that experience and say ‘We did something important here.’ That’s what Christmas is about. That’s what life is about. Unfortunately, we’re kind of in a culture where everybody is wrapped up in themselves, especially now. I don’t mean that in a cruel way. But we all have a little we can give.”
To adopt a family, call the Community Action Partnership at 714-897-6670 or visit capoc.org.