It all started as a holiday food drive just among post office credit union employees.
But nowadays, walk into any Orange County post office lobby until Christmas and you're likely to see a big cardboard box sporting a "Project Hope" label.
Employees of the Orange County Postal and Federal Employees Credit Union, the Orange County Health Care Agency and all 68 of the county post offices and substations cooperated in putting the boxes into place this week.
Project organizers hope the boxes will rapidly fill up with non-perishable food destined to brighten Thanksgiving and Christmas for needy people throughout the county.
Just before each holiday, the food will be delivered to the Health Care Agency by credit union employees and postal volunteers. Then it will be distributed to individuals and families identified by agency staff as being particularly needy, according to Nancy Berg, volunteer services coordinator for the Health Care Agency. Once those people are fed, the remaining food will be divided among low-income clients of various county health services, including an Orange shelter for the homeless mentally ill, Berg said.
Originally it was just a conversation between credit union employees. Debbi Clausi, a credit union marketing representative, talked to credit union manager Joy Lawrence about launching a holiday food drive. It was Clausi's job to find a local agency that could use the food. After calling a few community centers and learning that they weren't prepared to distribute food collections to the needy, Clausi began calling county government offices.
Before long she was talking to Berg, who coordinates a year-old county Holiday Hope Project. Through Holiday Hope, Berg said, 180 low-income individuals and families were temporarily "adopted" by individuals and organizations in 1985 and provided with Christmas dinners. Would the credit union like to adopt a few families?
The credit union adopted five families, promising to provide them with Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys. Baskets to collect additional non-perishable food for the families were also set up in the credit union's Garden Grove and Laguna Niguel offices.
Then it occurred to Clausi that postal employees served by the credit union might also like to get involved. Her husband, Frank, a vehicle operations maintenance assistant at the Huntington Beach Post Office, suggested that she contact Pat Burnett, a Huntington Beach postal claims clerk who has a reputation for helping people in need, Clausi said.
Burnett in turn contacted Hector Godinez, Santa Ana division general manager and postmaster, who authorized all the Orange County post offices in his jurisdiction (which includes post offices in the San Gabriel and Pomona valleys) to participate in the food drive. Clausi contacted administrators at the Long Beach post office division, which oversees five Orange County post offices, and got their approval for the project as well.
However, although participation was authorized, it was still up to the individual stations to decide if they wanted to join in, Clausi said. Every Orange County station responded enthusiastically to the idea. Officers and shop stewards of the American Postal Workers Union and the National Assn. of Letter Carriers, who represent Orange County postal employees, also offered to transport food from the post offices to the credit union offices, Clausi said.
Even though Huntington Beach, the office where she works, "isn't a depressed area," Burnett said, many people who need food, money and shelter come into the post office. "What I wanted to do is get a chain going" of people who would be willing to take turns helping the destitute, she said. "That's why I was so receptive when she (Clausi) called. I'd like to see every post office in the country do it. . . . I'd like to see this thing go on all year 'round."
"People are hungry all the time," not just at the holidays, Berg concurred. "I think a lot of people don't realize this because we're such an affluent county," Berg said. Yet many county residents have very little.
Although in past years the post office has often run toy collection and food drives among its employees, "unfortunately we can't generally say yes to the charities" when they ask the post offices to solicit donations from the public. "It would soon become an unmanageable situation," said Joseph Breckenridge, communications manager for the Santa Ana division. However, "because of the connection between the credit union and the post office," the mail service's participation in this food drive was approved, Breckenridge added.
Those whom the credit union has adopted independently of the countywide food drive include a family with 10 children, a family with nine children, an impoverished three-generation household, an elderly woman who lives alone and has serious health problems and a small family that just wrote "needs food badly" on its assistance request form, Clausi said.
"Our staff is looking forward to visiting the families, they didn't want to just go and drop the food off," Clausi told Berg at a recent meeting in Huntington Beach. "When you read what the social worker has to say about (each) family, it just kills you."
"That's why I like to call (the overall county project) 'Holiday Hope,' " Berg said. "These low-income families often don't feel hope."
Already, Berg said, other individuals and organizations--including Cal State Fullerton's Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and the Irvine Coast Realtors, a professional association--have adopted families for Thanksgiving and Christmas, but much more assistance is needed. Individuals and groups who are willing to sponsor low-income people all year are also being sought.
People who would like to do more than drop non-perishable food into the post office boxes should contact Nancy Berg at (714) 834-5585.