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Serve Charity or Council? She's Putting the Poor First

Community: Food bank director gives it priority over Lake Forest city post. She'll need help to keep doing both.

April 11, 1996|FRANK MESSINA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MISSION VIEJO — A single mother of three had barely enough money to pay for a cut-rate bag of groceries at the Adopt-A-Neighbor food program.

Then she spied a sign describing the fund-raising drive for the food bank and reached back into her purse for her last dollar, handing it to program director Kathryn McCullough.

"She said, 'Keep that, I want to make sure you can keep on feeding people like me,' " said McCullough, who also sits on the Lake Forest City Council. "It touched me so deeply, I had a hard time not bawling right there."

This is a time for tender emotions--and tough decisions--for McCullough.

After feeding about 100,000 poor people in the Saddleback Valley for 17 years, McCullough's food bank has run out of money, forcing her to make what she calls the hardest choice of her life.

The food program needs a $10,000 grant from the federal government to keep the power on and pay thousands of dollars in back rent. But citing conflict-of-interest concerns, federal officials won't approve the funds while McCullough both runs the community program and serves on the City Council, which administers the grant.

So McCullough, who was elected in November 1994--and is the only African American to ever sit on a city council in Orange County--has told city officials that she will resign from the council by the first week in May.

But something extraordinary has started to happen. All the charity that McCullough has given out over nearly two decades is starting to come back to her.

Plain white envelopes with a single $5 or $10 bill appear on McCullough's desk from the low-income people who are still getting bags of donated food from the program. And with time running out, the Lake Forest community that elected her to office is trying to help raise the $10,000 needed to keep the food bank afloat without losing the popular council member.

"I'm going to do whatever it takes to keep her on the council," said Ernie Rettino Sr., a longtime McCullough supporter. "Instead of tithing to my church this week, I'm tithing to Kathy."

This isn't the first time the program, which has depended on donations and county funding, has had financial woes. However, the situation has never been so dire.

McCullough has until Monday to find $10,000. After that, she said, the operation must leave its office, where it is two months behind on the rent.

She had counted on a Community Development Block Grant that the federal government gives cities to pass out to local nonprofit groups.

Even though the food bank is in Mission Viejo, it helps people throughout the Saddleback Valley, so the council agreed last year to award $10,000 in block grant funds to Adopt-A-Neighbor.

But McCullough had applied for that grant before she was elected to the council. When the Los Angeles office of Housing and Urban Development found out about her dual role on the council and the food bank, it decided not to allow her an exemption from its conflict-of-interest regulations.

"There can't be a situation where a person who exercises control over granting [block grant] funds works for a group getting the same funds," said HUD planning director Herbert Roberts, who added that Adopt-A-Neighbor would be eligible for the funding if McCullough quits the council.

McCullough admits that she shouldn't have counted on the funds.

"I just didn't have a Plan B ready for that money [the $10,000 grant]," she said. "This is the tightest spot we've ever been in."

McCullough, 53, has been an outspoken advocate in Lake Forest since she started the Adopt-A-Neighbor food program in 1969.

Yet the food bank was only the beginning of her involvement in the community. McCullough and her husband, Christopher D. McCullough, are co-pastors of the 40-member Mission Church in Lake Forest.

Long before she decided to run for office, she was a fixture in the audience at local council meetings, speaking out strongly on positions such as the need for mobile home rent control, increased spending for law enforcement and her opposition to El Toro Marine Air Station being converted into a civilian airport.

"I'd like for our community to learn participation," she said. "I want to impart a sense of ownership" of the city to residents. . . . "As soon as you put 'my' before 'city,' the city becomes as much your property as your house."

Adopt-A-Neighbor is her special project, the continuation of a lifelong desire to feed the hungry that McCullough says was passed along from her relatives when she was growing up in St. Louis.

"My grandmother and grandfather were very religious," McCullough said. "They taught me that everybody is your neighbor, particularly when they're in need.

"I saw [my grandmother] feed raggedy little neighbor children and bathe them, give them clean clothes and give them biscuits in a bag to take home," she said. "I just saw it as a way of life, and as a child it just impressed me as the thing to do."

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