When people ask Scott Mather what he does for a living, he asks them a question in return: "I say, 'Do you mean my vocation or avocation?' "
It was for his avocation--uncounted hours dedicated as a volunteer to the community's needy and homeless--that insurance agent Mather was honored as one of 18 recipients of Orange County Human Relations Commission awards, given Saturday night for contributions to further human and civil rights.
Other honorees were cited for their work with the disabled, the displaced, the poor, the Vietnamese community, farm workers and other disadvantaged groups.
"It's our responsibility as members of the community to be involved in the community," Mather said in an interview Sunday. "Not everybody can make it on his own."
Mather is chairman of the board of two groups--Share Our Selves (SOS), which distributes food, clothing and money for shelter to the needy, and the Orange County Interfaith Shelter, which provides stopgap housing for homeless families.
About a year ago, the Interfaith Shelter bought a nine-unit apartment complex, where families are allowed to stay for up to 60 days, until they can get on better financial footing and save to pay the rent and deposits necessary for apartments of their own. The group also operates an emergency shelter for overnight stays.
Under Mather's direction, SOS is preparing to open a free clinic next month in Costa Mesa, pulling together the volunteer services of about a dozen doctors and other health care practitioners. He said that so far, $70,000 has been spent on the clinic.
Mather, 41, a Costa Mesa resident, said many of the working poor are unable to afford medical care because minimum wage-earners often do not have insurance and because many of those who do have insurance have policies with high deductibles. Over the past few years, he said, SOS found it was spending larger sums on prescriptions for the poor and that a "needs analysis" indicated that a free clinic was urgently needed.
There are times, Mather said, when his volunteer efforts take away from his time as an independent insurance agent, "but I try to work a balance," he said. His wife runs the office in Newport Beach when he is away doing volunteer work.
For honoree Sister Carmen Sarati, the fight for human rights translates into efforts to obtain better housing for low-income Santa Ana residents uprooted by the city's code-enforcement campaign.
Formed David Coalition
Sarati works at St. Joseph Church in downtown Santa Ana, where many parishioners are being affected by the city's redevelopment program. She was one of several activists who formed the David Coalition, she said, to fight the "Goliath" problem of landlords who refuse to improve their property.
She helped organize the recent rent strikes against the landlords, who are being sued by the city to clean up their property. She also helped lead a candlelight procession to City Hall to lobby for relocation benefits for residents displaced by the city's cleanup campaign.
Political activism is nothing new for Sarati. She has picketed grocery stores to demonstrate in support of farm workers, lobbied for legislation to protect their rights and "been involved in other human rights and justice issues as far back as I can remember," she said.
Activism and religion are "hand in glove," said Sarati, 53. "I don't see how I can consider myself a Christian and ignore the issue of human rights . . . . The tradition I adhere to is to always look at the human condition . . . . I think I've done the traditional 'nunny' thing."
For Paula Margeson, working with the disabled poor at the Dayle McIntosh Center in Garden Grove is a full-time job, but she also devotes some of her efforts to volunteer work.
Housing for Disabled
Margeson, 38, of Cypress, has championed the cause of obtaining better housing for the disabled--primarily the wheelchair-bound, the blind and the deaf--for more than six years. For the financially strapped disabled, she said, housing presents a doubly difficult problem because a home must not only be affordable, it also must meet the special needs of the handicapped.
In December the McIntosh Center opened the first emergency shelter for the disabled in the state, she said. Called HEARTH (Housing Emergency Assistance Reserved for the Handicapped), the remodeled 30-year-old Garden Grove home provides temporary housing for people who otherwise would be sleeping in their cars, bus stations, parks or hotel lobbies, she said.
"It buys us time to find them something permanent," Margeson said.
The McIntosh Center is building a 40-unit apartment complex in Anaheim for the disabled. Units will be equipped with extra-wide doors to accommodate wheelchairs, flashing lights instead of doorbells for the deaf and guide rails for the blind--"little things that make a house a home to the disabled," said Margeson, who is totally blind from the effects of retinitis pigmentosa.
Rents and construction of the apartment complex will be completely subsidized with federal funds, Margeson said. Many disabled people are poor and need subsidized or affordable housing, she said.
Jean Forbath, Human Relations Commission chairwoman and executive director of SOS, said that more than 60 people were nominated from throughout the county for the awards. "It was a really hard decision to choose the winners," she said.
Other honorees were:
Gilbert Melendez, who also has worked for assistance to Santa Ana families displaced by the city's code enforcement program; Henry Sandoval, chairman of Club Latino, a group for Latino senior citizens; Mai Cong, founder of Vietnamese Community of Orange County; David Quezada, who works with tenants in Buena Clinton; Paul Apodaca, who is active in promoting American Indian culture.
Angie Camacho, who has advocated the rights of undocumented workers; Msgr. Wilbur Davis, a human-rights advocate who has brought together diverse community groups in Santa Ana; Maya Dunne, director of the Orange County Fair Housing Council; Mary Farley, who has worked with displaced tenants to seek redress in small claims courts; Sadie Reid, a civil rights advocate who served on the first Human Relations Commission.
Dick Ruiz, deputy director of the county Social Services Agency; Greta Zamora, who is a health educator and champion of farm laborers' rights; Narda Zacchino, editor of the Los Angeles Times Orange County edition; Shirley Almeida, co-founder of the Orange County Sexual Assault Network, and lawyer Linda Wong, who is an advocate of immigrants' rights.