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Joseph N. Bell

Helping Out Should Be a Year-Round Thing

November 23, 1989|Joseph N. Bell

While you and I were watching the USC-UCLA standoff last Saturday, Jeanne Sleeper and Frank Garcia were counting turkeys. They need a lot of them--about 200 they figure--to feed the 3,000 people to whom they will play host outside Garcia's Mexican restaurant in an Anaheim shopping center today.

When I talked to Sleeper about 5 p.m. last Saturday, she asked me how the game came out. She said there wasn't even time to check the score. That's how fast the birds were coming in.

"The turkeys just dropped out of the sky all day long," she said a little breathlessly. "A whole bunch of people doing their weekly shopping picked up an extra turkey and dropped it off at Frank's restaurant. A couple of secretaries from a local law firm contributed 16 turkeys they bought with money they collected from their lawyers last week as donations every time they turned work over to them. A stranger called right out of the blue and said he would be bringing over a check for $1,000, and somebody else dropped off a check for $200."

There was more. The food purveyors who service Frank Garcia's restaurant donated 1,200 pounds of onions. The street vendors' association called to say it would supply the carrots and celery. And the Cost Co. Warehouse of Anaheim offered to supply all the pastry.

All of this generous giving because Sleeper--who runs a "one-woman public relations agency working with small businesses"--and her friends, Frank Garcia and Al Martinez (who runs an auto body paint and repair shop), were talking at a local fiesta last September about how well they had done this year--and how they might give some of it back in gratitude. They hadn't decided how when they broke up and went home.

But later that night, Garcia called Sleeper with a "plan" to feed 3,000 hungry or lonely people at Thanksgiving. It would be done in a traditional American family way: turkey and dressing with all the trimmings, at festive tables. "We thought it was a wonderful idea," Sleeper said, "and the three of us began talking to everyone we knew as if it were a done thing. And it was. We were prepared to pick up the $50,000 tab if it turned out that way. But it didn't. More and more people wanted to help."

Local Coca-Cola representative Al Hernandez started the ball rolling by pledging all the Coke that was needed to wash down the turkey--and then several dozen other business firms and individuals signed up to help.

It was decided early on that there would be no screening of guests for need. "We agreed," said Sleeper, "that it wasn't our place to judge. When you give thanks, you don't put conditions on it. We hope to reach anyone who needs a place for dinner on Thanksgiving Day."

Pondering this quite remarkable generosity brings two thoughts quickly to mind. Recent studies of Orange County have marked us as well above average for selfishness in the nation in which we live. The county has one of the lowest charity-giving rates in the United States, and there is a very low commitment to civic or community activities compared with other affluent areas. According to the 1988 Orange County Annual Survey, county residents gave just $8.34 per capita to charity last year, contrasted with a national average of $18.79. So the Sleepers and Garcias of Orange County are saying, "Hey, we're not all like that. There's also a lot of kindness and love and warmth around here."

The second thought is more sobering. Americans have a high propensity for showing the flag when the parade goes by and packing it away the rest of the year. At Thanksgiving and Christmas, we go through our attics and toy chests and larders and share things we would probably have never used again anyway with the needy in our midst--and thus check off giving until next Thanksgiving and Christmas. It's a quick fix for feeling good about our own generosity. It never occurs to most of us to invest the time and money and effort of the Garcias and Sleepers in our midst.

But their Anaheim Thanksgiving bash, too, is a once-a-year event. The poor and lonely who get a lift at this huge Anaheim party are probably going to be poor and lonely in February and May, too. That's why the work of such organizations as the Orange County Rescue Mission and the Food Distribution Center and Share Our Selves and Street People in Need and the various church social and service organizations and Scott Mather's efforts on behalf of the Orange County homeless deserve our support year-round. They plug away, day after day, trying to feed the hungry and house the homeless and bring medical care to the sick. These people are never out of their view. But they tend to swim into our view about this time each year--that is if we allow them into our view at all--and then disappear with the football bowl games.

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