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A hand up instead of a handout

Charity: Help The Children Santa Clarita offers people in need an opportunity to grocery shop for $4

Posted: January 8, 2012 1:30 a.m.
Updated: January 8, 2012 1:30 a.m.

Sara Ludwick, 14, gives a bottle of juice from the dairy and produce section of Help the Children Santa Clarita to a client during food distribution night on Thursday.

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Judy is shopping for groceries, selecting from a wide variety of meats, cheese, produce, pasta, cookies and more. When she gets to the checkout counter, the total is just $4.

As a client of Help the Children Santa Clarita, Judy is able to put food on the table for her husband, son and herself, something the cancer survivor wouldn’t be able to do on her own at the moment.

“My husband got laid off; then I got sick. We had no income at one point,” said Judy, who lives in Saugus. “It was hard, but thank God for these people. I can get everything I need, from soup to shampoo, and it’s a really nice place.”

The warehouse-style facility located in an industrial area in Valencia is part of Help the Children, a non-profit organization ranked as one of America’s top 100 charities by Independent Charities of America and one of the country’s top 200 charities by Forbes.com.

The organization runs on a strict 1 percent operational budget, which means 99 percent of their funds are directed into providing food, toiletries, and medical supplies to families in need across 12 states and in 52 countries.

The $4 grocery contribution is a suggested donation, but not mandatory.

Santa Clarita Director Michael Santomauro said that most clients pay the $4, or the $2 suggested for seniors and the permanently disabled.

“Our guideline is trying to provide dignity and respect to all our clients by inviting them to contribute. What they leave with, in today’s prices, is about $80 worth of food,” he said.

Help the Children operates solely on private and corporate donations, as well as grants. It receives no government funding.

In the Santa Clarita Valley, a large portion food and toiletries are donated by Santa Clarita Valley grocery stores such as Ralphs, Albertsons, Costco, Whole Foods and Sprouts.

Individuals also contribute much needed supplies. Vickie Sims, of Valencia, donates about every two months.

This evening, she is dropping off baby clothes, dog food, flannel sheets and several packages of holiday desserts.

“I try to bring pet food. Pets get hungry and people will often share the food they get with their pets,” Sims said.

Inspired by a family member who once needed food assistance, but was turned away for not meeting a different organization’s financial guidelines, Sims appreciates that Help the Children doesn’t require strict criteria for its clients to participate.

“They truly help people who fall through the cracks. Here, they won’t send you away hungry. They’ll send you away with food,” she said.

During the application process, Help the Children Santa Clarita meets with each client to determine his or her individual needs, as well of those of any additional family members.

“Some customers don’t qualify for government assistance programs. They may have a family member that loses a job or becomes ill. Suddenly, their income is cut in half, and they can barely pay rent. It doesn’t take much to become financially depleted. That’s where we step in,” Santomauro said.

Most clients are allowed to shop once a week for up to 52 weeks, with exceptions for certain seniors and the permanently disabled.

“We believe in giving a hand up, not a hand out. Obviously, if the economy does not recover and someone is still sincerely in need, we won’t shut off the pipeline. We’ll review the situation and see if we can justify giving continued assistance,” Santomauro said.

Help the Children also provides job referral leads to clients whenever possible, and encourages local businesses to share employment opportunities with the organization.

“Anything to give them a hand up,” Santomauro said.

In 2010, Help the Children Santa Clarita processed 344,000 pounds of donated food and fed approximately 4,400 families, despite monetary donations decreasing by 30 percent over the last two years.

“The Santa Clarita facility has yet to be financially self-sufficient. We have to pay rent, utilities and insurance,” Santomauro said. “What’s hurting us the most is the lack of financial donations.”

Help the Children clients are able to shop once a week, on Tuesday or Thursday evenings or Saturday mornings.

Two boxes are given upon check-in to fill up with refrigerated items and canned goods.

For produce, packaged items and toiletries, clients can select from a wide variety of items; signs dictate quantity limits.

“It’s good food. We monitor for freshness and expiration dates,” said volunteer Isabel Camacho, of Valencia. “It feels like a market. Clients can pick from a variety of brands, whether they like Top Ramen or Campbell’s. They get to pick what they prefer.”

Camacho started volunteering in November and comes to the Valencia facility three to four times a week to translate for Spanish-speaking clients.

“They love it that someone can help them out,” Camacho said. “Usually, they rely on their kids to translate, but they can’t always bring their kids.”

Volunteer opportunities at Help the Children Santa Clarita are open to children, as well as adults.

Troops of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have volunteered at the facility by loading boxes and bags into a client’s vehicle.

“We get a lot of elderly and handicapped people,” Camacho said.

One such client is Mary, of Valencia, a retired senior living on a fixed income. Mary maneuvered through the tight aisles at
Help the Children with the assistance of a walker, commiserating with another client at the produce section.

“Look at the nice corn,” she said with a smile.

Without Help the Children, Mary said she might have to get a job in order to pay for groceries.

“There’s not much money left after I pay my bills,” she said. “This helps me a lot.”

For more information, call (661)702-8852 or visit www.helpthechildren.org.

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