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Helping hands in the SCV

Feeding Individuals Sharing Hope has helped feed families on Thursdays for 20 years

Posted: July 24, 2009 9:56 p.m.
Updated: July 25, 2009 4:55 a.m.

The Romero family carries home food donations from Valencia United Methodist Church on Thursday.

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By the time the cars pulled up behind the shopping center’s empty back alley, some 40 families were already waiting in Thursday night’s summer warmth.

Young children seated in the family vans jumped to the asphalt, holding hands with their parents to line up next to a chain-link fence. Many of the kids in old, faded clothes played with their siblings as parents mingled.

The five volunteers who caravaned from Valencia United Methodist Church parked their cars and began unloading brown-bag sacks of meals and plastic bags filled with fresh fruit.

“Thank God that there’s people to help,” said Blanca Gonzalez, who with her sister has gratefully accepted the meals — a hand-made baloney sandwich, salty snack, dessert and juice box — for the past two months.

It’s a weekly ritual that has been going on every Thursday night for 20 years — rain or shine, holiday or not.

“It feels really good that there’s somebody out there and helping the community and giving out food,” Gonzalez said through a Spanish translator.

She said she and her sister, who have four kids between them, are lucky to have a place to live, but the economy has left them without regular employment.

The volunteers are part of the Valencia church’s Feeding Individuals Sharing Hope ministry, or FISH.

The church has stayed true to the mission, serving meals every Thursday night for the last 20 years without missing a day.

“We want to be constant,” said Mindy Cope, 41, coordinator of the ministry. “We want people to know that they can come and food will be there.”

Besides the individual meals, volunteers distribute juice and fresh fruit for the families to take home.

On holidays, the offering is more grand — volunteers cooked and carved 10 turkeys for one Thanksgiving, Cope said.

Thursday nights typically bring familiar faces, but over the last six months, the church has served a lot more children, Cope said.

The higher demand has meant packing up to 60 meals for the families, said Cope, a Stevenson Ranch resident. Most weeks, the volunteers serve between 40 and 50 parents and kids, she said.

Linda Malerba, director of Lutheran Social Services in Canyon Country, said she also has seen an increase in families in need.

“We’re busier than ever, and it’s mainly families with school-aged children,” Malerba said.

Through the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services, the local agency offers a motel program allowing homeless families with young children to stay in a motel for up to 90 days, she said.

That time allows case managers to work with the clients in finding permanent housing and employment.

The motel program has hit capacity with 10 families a month, Malerba said. Last year, only four or five families needed it.

“It’s harder to find work that gives them a wage that they can live on,” Malerba said.

Limited paychecks may mean families have to choose between paying rent or fixing a broken-down car, she said.

At the shopping center Thursday night, the interaction between volunteers and families was often limited to “hi” and “thank you.”

Many of the families have no one who speaks English.

Sandy Naples, co-coordinator for the ministry, remembered her first night passing out meals nearly three years ago.

“The hugs, that’s what got me,” said Naples, a Castaic resident. “I think it was a sign from God that this is your purpose.”

Donating a few hours every Thursday is worth it, she said.

“I get more than I give,” the 51-year-old said. “I go home with a big smile.”

Gil Mattner, 81, has been a volunteer for 18 years.

“I think it gets you into the community,” he said, “rather than hung up in church.”

Signal Photographer Francisca Rivas contributed to this report.



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