How local families in need are staying fed, housed and cheered this holiday season
We live in a beautiful place. People vacation here, dream about living here. The holidays are fast approaching, so everything will soon be decorated with twinkling lights and sparkles. But behind this famed Orange Curtain lie the same problems that affect any other less-celebrated destination.
Homelessness and hunger are very real struggles in Orange County, with the number of poor hovering around 450,000 people. These people lack the financial resources that allow them to meet their basic food and shelter needs, and are considered poor by our traditional standards. Fortunately, there are many organizations who help fulfill the need for housing, food, and even education and training to help those down-and-out to get back on their feet.
Organizations like Family Promise offer a place for families to live while focusing on their next steps. These families stay as guests of local houses of faith, with each congregation signing up for a month of hosting one to four families. A Sunday school room is converted into space for these families, and meals are served in the evenings. The Family Resource Center in Orange is where families can shower, wash clothes, and receive therapy and other needed services. “In 2013 we served 115 individuals including 72 children, of which 92.5% returned to housing,” says Casey Crosby, Executive Director of Family Promise.
To help with the transition during the holidays, workplaces, churches, and individuals can sponsor a Giving Tree. A list will include person-specific gifts or gift cards for use by any family. People can also host a “move-in kit” party, where daily necessities like toiletries and cleaning supplies are collected and donated. Also appreciated are little extra items to make a new place feel like home when these families move back to their own place.
Hunger, however, seems to outpace homelessness. “Since Orange County is not a third world country and there is no shortage of food, we know that hunger in Orange County is a symptom of poverty,” says Mark Lowry, director of the Orange County Food Bank. The OC Food Bank works with over 400 local organizations to end hunger, and distributes food to 50 sites across the county. Hunger and homelessness are not mutually exclusive, which is why fewer of those who are hungry are also homeless. Those who don’t have adequate funds for food include persons who are disabled or unemployed.
“The largest number of people needing food assistance are seniors living on fixed incomes and the ‘working poor’,” says Lowry. With Orange County’s estimated living wage being closer to $25 per hour, those having to live off service industry jobs paying $9 or $10 per hour are feeling the struggle to meet Orange County’s cost of, well, living.
The programs offered through the food bank are year-round because, as Lowry puts it, “hunger knows no season.” However, with heightened awareness of it during the holiday season, the food bank does have its Hope for the Holidays campaign that includes all of the specials events and efforts that take place during the holiday season, such as food drives, adopt-a-family programs, and hosted holiday events. (The Orange County Food Bank invites you to participate in the free Hope for the Holidays kickoff event November 5th, from 5:30-7:30pm at the Anaheim Packing House.)
Mary’s Kitchen in Orange also sees the struggle firsthand. Started in 1984 by 82-year-old Mary McAnena, Mary’s Kitchen provides a place for families to wash their laundry, take a hot shower, receive clothing, and to eat three meals a day – breakfast in the morning, a hot meal for lunch, and a sack dinner to take after the kitchen closes for the day. Every Thursday, donated clothes that have been sorted and arranged by size are handed out to the poor. Roughly 100 people make it into Mary’s each day, so volunteers maintain the efficiency of the laundry machines and showers, to ensure everyone will have both.
Mary’s Kitchen operates entirely on donations and volunteers, and every year they have a special Christmas dinner. Volunteers and donations are always needed, and Mary’s will happily accept yours.
“Mary’s Kitchen was near and dear to my mom’s heart, who passed away a year ago,” says Amy McCamly of Fullerton, who actively volunteers for Mary’s Kitchen, and has taken on more of a role there since her mother’s passing. “Even when my mom was suffering from seizures and a bad hip, I couldn’t keep her away. Her philosophy was that there is always someone who needs you.”
Indeed, there is. Whether it’s the homeless needing shelter, the hungry needing food, or children being born in less-fortunate circumstances, someone always needs you.
Fristers has got the last one covered. Fristers caters to a specific demographic: teen moms. Orange County ranks fifth in California for counties with the most teen births. Fristers works to ready Orange County teen moms for the workplace and their children for school. “We don’t provide housing, because these young women don’t necessarily need housing,” says Fristers founder Ali Woodard. “They need help in parenting and in finding a job, and help with work. We are able to reach more moms with education and support.”
While Fristers doesn’t necessarily see a spike in teen visitors seeking help during the holidays, there is a spike in donations because of all the children. “A lot of people want to give toys,” says Woodard of the charitable spirit that surfaces with the holidays, and Fristers gives away about 400 toys a year to the children of the mothers it helps. It also hosts an annual Christmas party at each of the six chapter locations. Gift cards are given to the moms for household necessities, and Fristers greatly welcomes age-appropriate developmental toys for kids ages zero to six, as well as volunteers for a variety of opportunities, including mentorship, transportation, meals, education, and more.
Orange County has a lot of wealth, but it is also home to a lot of poverty. Fortunately, there are many organizations countywide that work tirelessly to combat the difficulties that come with poverty. While these organizations work throughout the year, we all can make sure they have a fantastic holiday season. M
Looking for a way to help your neighbors this holiday season? Click here for family-friendly volunteer opportunities!