The Embers Die but the Need Continues : * Generous Fire Aid Should Not Lessen Efforts to Assist Other Groups Year-Round

United Way Chairman Vince Kontny delivered a needed reminder to Orange County residents this month when he coupled his expression of sympathy for Laguna Beach fire victims with the apt observation that there are many other groups and problems warranting attention.

The outpouring of clothes, food and services to fire victims was impressive and deserved. As it has done before, Orange County came to the rescue when people were in need. But some nonprofit groups are concerned that those who responded to dramatic pictures of the devastation may not remember the tens of thousands of others in the county who fight personal battles every day.

Those lacking enough food, clothing or even a home are not always thrust into our consciousness, but their problems are just as real. For example, the Food Distribution Center estimates that there are nearly 400,000 hungry people in the county.

The organizations that help do business all year round; their need for money and volunteers never stops.

For many groups, Thanksgiving launches a major fund-raising time, with the hope that shoppers and churchgoers focused on the upcoming holidays will remember those less fortunate. And with another year of recession, the number of the less fortunate grows.

To take just one example, the Southwest Minority Economic Development Assn. in Santa Ana reports a 30% increase in the number of people it is serving this year. The association received several large corporate donations last year that allowed it to balance its budget, but it does not expect them to be matched this year.

Businesses and their executives have long been prime supporters of nonprofit groups in Orange County and were the major reason the Orangewood Children's Home and the Orange County Performing Arts Center were built. In a good example of such giving, several business people were honored this month for donating $10,000 each to sponsor living quarters for families at the Orange Coast Interfaith Shelter in Costa Mesa. The shelter gives families a roof over their heads for two months and provides food and counseling to help them find jobs and permanent housing.

Laguna Beach itself helped many people long before the fires, from the homeless to those suffering from AIDS. It's good to see the community again rallying to those devastated by fire, and receiving help from outside. But as churches, senior citizen centers and health-care workers know, much remains to be done in Orange County, and we all must help.

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