I had no intention of writing about MEND when I went to the charity's benefit tea Saturday.
I planned to load up on those little cucumber sandwiches, snag some nice gifts at the silent auction, catch up with old friends, and go home feeling good about helping a group that does so much to help others.
Instead, I came away astounded by the power of a dream and grass-roots team.
MEND -- Meet Each Need With Dignity -- has been around for almost 40 years and is probably the San Fernando Valley's best-known charity. It's where teenagers go when they need to do community service, where schools drop off canned goods for Thanksgiving baskets, where families send old clothes when they clean out their closets.
It's grown from a handful of nuns and Catholic do-gooders, handing out food and used clothing from a cramped storefront in Pacoima, to a $7-million operation, serving almost half a million clients last year with 19 employees.
And 2,600 volunteers.
The groundwork for MEND was laid in the late 1960s with a truckload of furniture -- castoff couches, tables and beds collected from middle-class friends and delivered by Ed and Carolyn Rose to poor families in a corner of the Valley that missed out on the region's suburban prosperity.
The Roses helped organize volunteers in their parish, Our Lady of Peace, and in three other northeast Valley churches; began collecting food and clothes; and spread the word to local schools, churches and community groups that families could come to them for help.
Seventeen years later, MEND hired its first paid staffer, director Marianne Haver Hill. By then, 400 volunteers were feeding, clothing and teaching English to 40,000 residents.
Last year, 488,269 clients sought help at MEND's new headquarters, a brightly colored 40,000-square-foot building that resembles a child's Lego project amid the cheap motels and auto repair shops along San Fernando Boulevard.
Inside, MEND looks like a suburban mall, with a clothing store, cafe, child-care center, spacious kitchen and food storage areas.
Upstairs, there is a medical clinic with 10 exam rooms, a dental office with eight chairs, a vision center, private counseling rooms, a pharmacy and lab. And all the doctors, dentists, nurses, counselors and technicians are volunteers.
The clinic got its start 15 years ago, Ed Rose said, "when a woman doctor came in and said she'd like to volunteer. The lady walks in off the street and sets up a little area to look at patients. And that grew to what we have here." The clinics served more than 4,000 patients last year.
MEND doesn't require clients to pay, though many donate what they can. Almost all of the group's funding comes from private corporations and foundations, and gifts from local schools, churches and philanthropic groups. The group is able to spend 96% of what it raises on client services because volunteers give so much time -- 112,206 hours of free help last year.
Including Ed and Carolyn. At 70, Ed drives a truck on weekends, picking up donated food and furniture. Carolyn, 65, volunteers in the medical clinic. Both are at MEND almost every day.
Other volunteers run the gamut: retired doctors, dental students and moonlighting nurses. Cooks prepare meals on their days off. Welfare mothers sort clothes. Residents of a local rehab center truck in food and pack boxes. College students and locals help with assessing clients.
Many volunteers are former clients, grateful for a chance to give back and willing to share their stories with new visitors, who are often embarrassed that they need help.
Even the sponsors of Saturday's tea wound up rolling up their sleeves. "I had seven people at my house all day, making 500 ginger and currant scones," said organizer Bette Baer, part of a loose-knit group of empty-nesters from across the Valley that hosts regular fundraisers for MEND. Letty Siegel helped make 250 finger-sandwiches, something she never had to do for her fundraisers with the National Charity League.
More than $35,000 was raised Saturday. "And because we did the work ourselves," Siegel said, "every penny went to MEND."
It's a money-saving measure, yes, relying on the free labor of good-hearted volunteers. But it's a soul-satisfying choice as well.
On Monday, I could see it in the faces of guys lifting heavy boxes of food in the kitchen, and hear it in the voices of older women helping young mothers pick out shoes and jackets for their children.
And I could imagine it, listening to the stories Ed shared about the volunteers who make home visits to their poorest clients.
They visit more than 1,000 families each year, not to weed them out or verify their poverty, but to see if there's anything more they need. "We find them living in rented rooms, toolsheds, garages, camper shells," he said. "They come to us for food and we find they have no furniture. Or Dad can't work because he's sick and no one thought to tell us that.
"We go to them and they trust us. Because it helps a person's dignity to have someone who cares enough to come and visit when they're not being paid to do it."