Nine years ago, college instructor Susan Silbert and some of her students held a raffle and raised enough money to provide about 70 Christmas dinners for needy families.
Today, Silbert operates on a different scale. This morning, she and hundreds of volunteers plan to distribute 2,500 food baskets, which they hope will feed more than 12,000 needy people.
On three evenings last week, she and her legion of helpers--children, teen-agers, adults and senior citizens--gathered in a hangar at Santa Monica Municipal Airport to sort and package food for the baskets.
"This has grown not so much because the need has grown so significantly, but because more people want to give. And this provides an avenue for them to participate in something meaningful," Silbert said in an interview.
Indeed, what began as a modest undertaking by a small group of classmates has blossomed into an incorporated nonprofit organization called One Voice with a network of hundreds of volunteers and year-round programs to help the disadvantaged.
"We knew that the need did not just exist on Dec. 25," said Silbert, who is director of the group. "What happens is that when you do something, it grows."
Silbert, who grew up in Brentwood and now lives in West Los Angeles, said her group has provided an avenue for participation, particularly for affluent people.
"Being rich doesn't mean you don't care," she said. "It's just that people don't know how to help. I think people find meaning in their lives by helping others."
Most of the volunteers participate in the group's collection and distribution of Christmas food baskets.
The group pays for some of the food and supplies, but the majority of it is donated.
Jack Berlin, whose company, Potato Sales, provides One Voice with produce, has been involved with the group since the beginning.
"I never saw so much enthusiasm as I saw in Susan," Berlin said.
The scene Wednesday night inside the chilly, cavernous hangar--the use of which was donated by its owner, Judy Barker--was reminiscent of Santa's elves preparing for Christmas: Volunteers, bundled up in coats and scarves, busily worked in groups of five to eight around portable tables. The sounds of Christmas songs blared in the background as some sang along.
Each food basket distributed today contains a turkey, canned food, fresh vegetables, fruits and pies.
Silbert said that as the number of people being served has grown, she and her helpers have made a special effort to keep the quantity of food generous and the quality high.
"We treat these people like our own families," she said. "You don't put family at the end of the table and give them crummy food. We provide top-quality food."
As he sorted and packed the food Wednesday night, Ray Michaud, headmaster of the private John Thomas Dye School in Bel-Air, said he has been a volunteer for five years and got his school involved four years ago.
"I was looking for something for a hands-on, concrete experience for our kids," he said as he placed yams in a bag with the assistance of his son and other students from the school. "This provides that, and I think they love it. This is an experience in unconditional love."
At another table, Mary Sidell and her daughter, Devin, 10, were packaging oranges.
Volunteering, Sidell said, gives children a chance to see first-hand that there are others less fortunate.
"It's not in the realm of their everyday experiences," she said. "That's why it's important that they know there is a need out there."
"I want to help the homeless," Devin said.
Tanya Lopez, a talent agent who was one of Silbert's original students and who is now on the board of directors of One Voice, said her participation provides balance in her life.
"This is a real touchstone for me," she said. "This reminds me of what is really important in the world. People are searching for something to do to make the world a better place to live. You just have to give them a little direction."
Silbert, a former sociology teacher who had taught at several area colleges, began her fund-raising and food collection efforts out of her West Los Angeles home as a year-round emergency aid program, responding to requests from area social workers.
She started with a few Head Start programs serving the inner-city area and began providing Christmas dinners to families of Head Start students, all of whom fall below the federal poverty level (which now is an annual household income of $12,700 for a family of four).
She incorporated her program in 1982, and opened an office in Santa Monica. She now has an annual budget of $100,000--all through private donations--and a paid staff of five.
Silbert said she has funds only to last through June, and for the first time will have to concentrate on fund-raising. But for now, she is focused on distributing the Christmas food baskets.
"This is more than just giving them food, we give them hugs," she said. "If the families we are giving food to have not been hugged four or five times by the volunteers, then we feel we failed."