When autumn comes, Midge Gold springs into action, supervising the selection and distribution of more than 700 gifts for the children, staff and foster families of Vista Del Mar Child Care Service and affiliates of the Cheviot Hills organization.
During the last three months of each year, the petite, peppy volunteer heads a group of equally energetic co-workers at the residential treatment center for emotionally troubled Jewish children, and their families.
In spite of the rainstorm pounding outside, Gold and her crew were hard at work on a recent pre-Hanukkah morning, sorting through a rich, colorful chaos of toys and clothing in the cavernous board room at the back of Vista Del Mar's administration building.
They were seeking presents for residential children and the day treatment children on the Vista campus, off-campus foster home children and their foster parents and siblings, nursery school children, and girls and boys over 18 who live in the Vista's Group Homes. They also were preparing gifts for two Vista Del Mar affiliates: the Home-Safe family day care program and the Julia Ann Singer Center, a therapeutic center for preschool and young school children.
"This is a holiday that has top priority here," Gold said. "We want the kids to feel that they are going to be gifted the same as many of our own children would be. Everything that's given to them is brand new--no hand-me-downs--and everything is specially selected according to what they really want.
"Originally, when we started emphasizing Hanukkah about 18 years ago, we were really low on funds. We'd solicit the manufacturers in the community for whatever we could get, and then have to make do with things the children didn't necessarily want. Now we have a form for the kids to fill out offering them a variety of choices, and thanks to the success of our annual fund-raising Hanukkah letter, we're usually able to give them what they choose."
As Gold talked she kept a sharp eye on the morning's volunteers, most of whom have been active at Vista for more than 20 years. The women worked cheerfully, making order out of the disorder.
Singer Gogi Grant, a 17-year Vista volunteer who served two terms as president of Vista's Associate Board, described her feeling of satisfaction at working with the annual Hanukkah project. "It's so tangible," she said, wrapping strands of blue and white ribbon around a silver package. "We do many other things here that may be more important, but this is a chance to be involved in doing something directly for the children."
Refuge for Jewish Children
Established in 1908 by a group of Los Angeles families as a refuge for Jewish children, Vista Del Mar originally was called the Jewish Orphan's Home of Southern California.
"Today there seem to be fewer real orphans, and those that do come to us are placed with relatives or adoptive parents," said Sam Berman, Vista's executive director. "We deal here with what we call the orphans of the living. These are youngsters whose families have broken up. There are multiple divorces and reunions that eventually set the kids adrift.
"We also have young people here with severe emotional problems who can't be treated while they're living at home. They're usually in difficulty with the law, or their peers, often they have a drug problem . . ., self-defeating kids who need a 24-hour environment of support. Life here is surrounding the children with support and protection and treatment. Here they're secure, and they know that the atmosphere is one of real concern about them."
Community involvement is a key ingredient in the success of Vista Del Mar, according to Berman, who noted that the agency has an umbrella of services unlike those of any other agency in the area.
"We have the only Jewish children's residential program in California, and we're the hub of a network including Reiss-Davis Child Study Center, the Julia Ann Singer Center, and Home-Safe, a day care center for small children of single parents," Berman said.
"There are children here from preschoolers to those who are ready to go off to college, so gathering appropriate Hanukkah gifts is no easy task--although Midge Gold makes it seem that way."
Almost invisible in the wild confusion of the huge wrapping room, the diminutive Gold studied a rack of clothing--brand new jackets, jeans, dresses, blouses--making a specific selection for a child on her list. She explained that each of the children will receive two substantial gifts, one of clothing and the other "a fun thing," like a Walkman stereo or a clock-radio.
"Our residential cottages are divided into three units of 11 children each, and these units receive a major community gift as well," Gold said. "In the past few years they've gotten television sets and VCR's. This year we have three requests for typewriters, a few for sewing machines, and one for a Ping-Pong table for the Boys' Group Home in the Valley.