Apodaca: This is not the time to say the poor aren't 'my business'

Every year at this time, I revisit one of my favorite Christmas stories, Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."

One scene never fails to stir my conscience. In it, two men soliciting donations for the poor approach the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, telling him, "We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when want is keenly felt, and abundance rejoices."

That line came to mind while I was on a recent visit to the Costa Mesa Motor Inn, where an initiative to help the homeless is giving sorely needed aid to families caught in dire circumstances.

The effort is spearheaded by the Irvine-based Illumination Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in 2008 to provide support to the homeless population throughout Orange County. The foundation was the subject of a Daily Pilot profile last summer, one of an occasional series about homelessness in Costa Mesa.

But there's another organization, working in partnership with the Illumination Foundation, which also deserves a shout-out. It's a student-run nonprofit out of UC Irvine called the Medical Initiative Against Homelessness, or MIAH, through which medical students and under grads provide tutoring, medical assistance, and other services to the homeless.

I met recently with two MIAH members at the Motor Inn on Harbor Boulevard, where the Illumination Foundation helps temporarily house homeless families.

Kimberly Truong is a second-year UCI medical student who signed up as an under grad, and is now MIAH's co-president. She was joined by Samer Kirmiz, a MIAH volunteer who graduated from UCI in 2010 with a degree in neurobiology, and is working as an emergency room assistant and a waiter while preparing to apply to medical school.

Truong and Kirmiz spoke of their awakening to the reality of homelessness that exists not far beyond the cloistered walls of academia, and their desire to do what they could to relieve suffering. To them, the choice to join MIAH was a no-brainer.

"I'm a healthy person, and I'm a young person," said Kirmiz. "If I can help someone, I should."

"It's wonderful to have their help," said Katie Rootlieb, the Illumination Foundation's director of communications and development, adding that MIAH has played a pivotal role in assisting with the youngest victims of homelessness.

In the 2010-11 school year, there were an estimated 28,091 homeless children in Orange County, 211 of whom were in Newport-Mesa, according to the Orange County Department of Education.

"That's why groups like MIAH are so important to our organization," Rootlieb said.

Despite their own jam-packed schedules, Truong, Kirmiz, and other MIAH members tutor homeless children, assist at mobile medical clinics around the county, and help with the Illumination Foundation's recuperative care program that gives homeless people newly discharged from hospitals a place to recover.

The pair was eager to show me the "classroom" that MIAH fashioned out of a storage area — one of the modest rooms at the rear of the motor inn used for Illumination Foundation support services.

MIAH volunteers brought in tables, chairs, a white board, corkboard, books and lamps; one member even painted a colorful wall mural to brighten the room. Every Thursday evening, a dozen or so kids show up for free tutoring, homework assistance and healthy snacks.

Kirmiz conceived the classroom idea after noticing that the homeless children temporarily housed at the motor inn lacked adequate study space. When the room makeover was completed, he said, "the kids walked in and their eyes were so big, and they went 'wow, wow, wow.'

"Some of these kids are truly intelligent," he said. "They want to be something."

Truong believes her experiences with MIAH will make her a better doctor because she now appreciates how difficult it is for those of meager means to navigate the health-care system. She cited the example of one homeless man currently in recuperative care who overcame alcoholism only to learn he had a brain tumor. Truong and other volunteers are struggling to find a shelter that will accept him while he's confined to a wheelchair.

Stories like that "just hit me so hard," she said. "They're definite eye-openers."

Perhaps the rest of us are due for a little eye-opening as well.

In "A Christmas Carol," Scrooge coldly rebuffs the men seeking a donation to help the destitute.

"It's not my business," he tells them.

We all know how that works out. Scrooge at last finds his humanity, and takes to heart the pleas of his ghostly visitors.

"Mankind was my business," the doomed spirit of his former partner tells him. "The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business."

Let those of us fortunate enough to rejoice in relative abundance this holiday season remember those whose want is keenly felt, and make it our business to support such worthy organizations as the Illumination Foundation and MIAH.

Next Sunday, Dec. 18, MIAH volunteers will be on hand when the Illumination Foundation hosts its annual holiday carnival for the families at the Costa Mesa Motor Inn. There will be food, booths, photos with Santa, and other activities designed to bring a dose of cheer to those caught in homelessness' unforgiving cycle.

For more information, check out the websites, http://www.ifhomeless.org, and http://www.clubs.uci.edu/miah/.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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