Donors Find Joy, Surprises in 'Adopting' Poor Families

Times Staff Writer

'I want to see the people, know where my money is going. I want to give people something they really need.'

Spreading a little holiday cheer has had its surprises for some people in the San Fernando Valley:

Jaquie Austin of Van Nuys asked a needy woman who lived in a garage with her two children if she wanted a turkey or ham Christmas dinner. The woman said would like milk and disposable diapers instead--and right away.

Wayne Okerman of Northridge made a special visit to a Sylmar family to say he was going to bring them a big, lush Christmas tree. But once he entered the house, he found they already had a tree, of sorts. So he offered to fix their kitchen sink.

Alan Wing of Sherman Oaks had been taking food to what he thought was a poor family, only to find that the family didn't need Christmas baskets. They needed English books.

At a time of year when many donate canned goods and wrapped toys to charities, a program run by MEND, a private social service organization in Pacoima, is bringing the fortunate and the needy together this holiday season.

Under its Adopt a Family program, MEND is capitalizing on the holiday spirit in an effort to find year-round aid for the poor in the Northeast Valley.

About 125 of the neediest families who have sought Christmas food baskets from the organization are asked if they would like to be "adopted" by another family.

If the family agrees, MEND (Meet Each Need With Dignity) matches them with a donor--usually a middle-class person or family that hears of the program through a church.

Relationship Often Lasts

At the very least, a needy family will receive holiday food, clothing or toys for Christmas from its adoptive family. But for about 25% of the families, MEND officials say, what begins as a simple act of holiday good will turns into an ongoing relationship when the two families meet.

"This puts people in touch with the reality of their community," said Jean Travis, a longtime Northridge resident who heads the program. "Many people are very nervous and reluctant to actually come in contact with the poor. And I think the poor see those who are more fortunate as being very remote and aloof. There are a lot of prejudices on both sides."

MEND gives little instruction to the adoptive family except to say that it should meet with the needy family to learn the type of food they enjoy for Christmas dinner.

Jaquie Austin, 53, squinted at the address she had written down from the MEND office and directed her niece to drive a little farther down Van Nuys Boulevard in Pacoima. She talked a bit nervously as she explained why she was going to visit a strange family in an unfamiliar neighborhood at night.

"I don't like Christmas for the simple reason that people end up buying $40 or $50 gifts for people who can provide for themselves anyway," she said. "I just got tired of it all and can't afford it anymore."

'Something They Really Need'

This year she told her friends she wasn't exchanging presents but was adopting a poor family instead, and wanted canned goods for Christmas to give to the family.

But why not donate money to charity?

"I want to see the people, know where my money is going," she said as she was driving. "I want to give people something they really need."

When she pulled up to the address, Austin was shocked.

"This house is no different than mine. I think it's better," she said, double-checking the address of the neat suburban home.

As she got out of the car, a small woman carrying a chubby baby came to the fence. Austin introduced herself and said she was from MEND. The woman, Maria Torrez, 37, who spoke little English, heard MEND, smiled and signaled for the women to come into her home--the garage on the side of the house.

Once inside, Torrez again signaled to her guests, this time for them to sit down on the edge of a bed. Austin smiled and asked in slow English if the woman wanted "hhhaaammm or turrrrrkey" for Christmas dinner.

Milk and Disposable Diapers

One of Torrez's five school-aged children translated into Spanish that their mother was being asked what she needed for Christmas.

" Leche y Pampers," milk and Pampers, Torrez said, signaling with her fingers that she only had a little bit of milk left.

Austin took Torrez and her baby to Las Sierras Market in Pacoima, where the woman left her baby with Austin in a shopping cart seat as she scurried around the store.

The 1-year-old began to reach for Austin, touching her face, tugging her shirt. With a trembling hand, Austin reached for the baby and stroked his chubby face.

"Aren't you cute, aren't you cute?" she cooed. "Mama's getting you milk right now and then you'll be happy."

Most charitable groups in the Valley tend to shy from one-on-one contact between donor and receiver, opting instead to act as the go-between, several organization leaders said.

The Salvation Army and other organizations, for instance, will take what are called "Angel Trees" to offices and churches. The trees bear ornaments with the name and age of a needy child. A donor picks an ornament and buys a toy for the child.

'Can Create a Real Problem'

"But the two don't get to meet," said John Purdell, corps commanding officer for the Salvation Army in Van Nuys. "It's awfully easy to demean the needy family or for that family to be embarrassed. . . . There is also the chance that the needy family can create a real problem for the donating family if they keep asking for assistance."

He said the Salvation Army in Van Nuys will distribute toys to 750 children throughout the Valley as a result of the "Angel Tree" set up in the Sherman Oaks Galleria.

"I'm sure it is wonderful if a giving family gets close with a poor family," he said. "But it has to be handled with extreme grace and caution."

Wayne Okerman was welcomed into the Cervacio home like a familiar family friend. He hugged a smiling 11-month-old boy as he entered the tiny living room and set a couple bags of food and cartons of milk on the kitchen table.

He and several members of his church have been visiting the family since Thanksgiving. The man of the house had left several months ago and the family was supporting itself on $395 a month in government aid that they received for their 6-year-old handicapped brother, Okerman said.

Today he had come to tell the Cervacios that they were going to bring them a big Christmas tree over the weekend.

But Okerman immediately saw that the family of 11 children had beat him to the idea. They had found their own little tree--a dry branch, twinkling with tinsel and a single strand of lights, propped up in a coffee can.

Okerman's visit was brief because Maria Cervacio, the mother of the family that lives in a squat three-room house, was out. He chatted with the middle daughter, Maria, 15, about what her family usually does on Christmas.

"We go to church at 12 o'clock in the afternoon. We usually all walk. It's too expensive for all of us to take the bus," she said. "And then we like the tamales and pozole, " a soup that she said is made with hominy and pork and garnished with green onion and radishes.

Okerman pulled a slip of paper from his coat pocket and began to jot down the ingredients as the girl spoke.

"Well, tell you mother I came by to tell her we want to stop by on Saturday to fix the kitchen plumbing," he said. "And don't forget to put away the milk."

The MEND Adopt a Family program is 15 years old, an off-shoot of the organization's annual Christmas basket program that provides food for about 1,000 needy families. The organization is largely run by members of Roman Catholic churches in the West Valley.

Families begin signing up for a Christmas basket as early as October. A MEND volunteer visits the home of each recipient to verify their need and the poorest families are given the chance to participate in the program.

Travis said that more than enough families ask to adopt a family.

Not Just a 'Handout'

"Our aim is not just to give a handout," Travis said. "We tell the adoptive families not to overwhelm them with gifts. We don't want to foster materialism. Food for one meal, a toy, a little clothing is what we ask."

"We get people from Northridge and Chatsworth, people who have never seen poverty before," said Sister Becky Gaba, who runs the MEND organization. "When they do come face-to-face with poor people and see that they want the same things for their families, some of them want to do more than just meet emergency needs. The whole idea of aid seems to sink into a different level."

Last Christmas, Alan Wing, 57, adopted a family that was living in a Pacoima garage. Ramon Estrada, head of the house, understood little English, but Wing said the family seemed to understand he was from the church.

For six months, Wing visited and played with Estrada's three children, bringing food and clothing whenever he could.

Then, in May, the family gave him a new address and told them they were moving. The family had bought a house in Pacoima.

"Here I was all this time thinking they were really poor, living in a garage and they were both working and saving money to buy a house," Wing laughed. "But by then this family had had an impact on my life. Their children would hug me. I was learning about their culture.

"So I asked Ramon what he really needed, and he said he wanted to learn English," Wing said. Because Ramon and his wife worked all day they had been unable to take classes and did not want to leave their children with a baby sitter at night.

Since then, Wing and the Estradas have met Monday and Thursday nights for English lessons.

Food Was a 'Surprise'

Ramon Estrada can now tell the story:

"We were living in the garage and the lady who owned it put us with MEND," he said in English. "Then Alan came. I didn't know who he was and only knew he came from the church. I got a surprise when he came with food. But my English, it was not good."

This year the Estradas and Wing have joined to adopt the family of Candelario Limon in San Fernando.

"I don't need that much," Estrada said. "But Alan brought us things and taught us the English, so maybe we can help someone else."

His wife, Alejandra, who hasn't picked up the language as quickly as Ramon, struggled to translate into English the Spanish words Wing was pointing to on the paper.

"Hhhappeeeee, oh no, no," she said, blushing from her mistake.

"Maaareeee Chreeeezmas!"

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