Like the people it serves, a food bank for terminally ill patients in the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys is fighting for its life.
The last of a $5,000 grant from Los Angeles County will be spent by the end of August, and the food bank's founder, Robert Buckner, admits that the future is in doubt. "Our contract ends in August and who knows what we'll do then," he said.
Still, Buckner remains hopeful. Perhaps, he said, the concern that launched the food bank in April will carry it forward. Begun after a two-year struggle, the organization continues to receive donations of food and cash from the public, businesses and other food banks.
The program has asked the county for a $25,000 grant and has grant applications pending before other charitable organizations. But whether those grants will be awarded is anybody's guess, Buckner said.
The food bank, tucked into a 375-square-foot office in a small commercial complex in Acton, is officially called Desiderata Inc., Food Pantry Program for the Terminally Ill. To qualify for help, a person must have a fatal disease and earn less than $1,000 a month.
'After Specific Group'
"We're after a specific group," said Buckner, an Acton resident who supervises child-abuse services for the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services in Panorama City. "Not everyone falls into our category."
Buckner, 35, said he was inspired to start the food bank after a friend died two years ago of complications arising from acquired immune deficiency syndrome. He surveyed area hospitals and county health-care programs and found that, between November, 1987, and April, 1988, there were 435 terminally ill residents in the Antelope and Santa Clarita valleys.
That's when Buckner learned that some terminally ill people, unemployed and burdened with rising medical expenses, have little money left for food and rent. During his survey, he discovered a 58-year-old Valencia woman, dying of cancer, who was surviving on rice and tea, often using the same withered tea bag again and again.
Buckner decided to open the food bank in Acton because it is a 25-minute drive from either valley. About 20 volunteers purchase food, solicit donations and staff the Desiderata office, which is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The shelves, freezers, chairs, desk and telephone were donated. No one, including Buckner, receives a salary.
He estimates that about 100 Antelope and Santa Clarita valley residents qualify for Desiderata's services. But so far, only about 20 have approached the organization. Only five people presently use the service. "We're still rather new to the community," he said.
Joy Reaves, a Lancaster resident who helped Buckner launch Desiderata, said some people may be reluctant to seek its help because the stigma of terminal disease discourages them from venturing out in public.
Reaves and other volunteers are trying to publicize Desiderata's services by contacting health and social service organizations, from Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital in Valencia to AIDS Project Los Angeles.
Despite the low turnout of patients so far--and Desiderata's uncertain future--Buckner insisted that the food bank has been worth the effort. It has offered terminally ill people not just sustenance but compassion, he said.
"I would hate to see this agency fall through the cracks," he said. "You have to remember these people are devastated."
One such person was an AIDS victim who visited Desiderata recently for the first time. He was lonely, recalled Sheila Cox, a volunteer from Canyon Country. His relatives had disowned him and he wanted to talk. "He didn't have family to turn to," Cox said. "I was seeing that there really was a need."