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Sep 21st
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Miracle Workers

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Giving is the new receiving ... again. Our four spotlighted Community Fund nonprofits, and how they make Santa Cruz County a better place with your help.

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The illusion tells you: ‘times are tough.’ But the reality is, without local contributions to the area’s nonprofits, the ‘times’ could be worse.

 

What a year it’s been. After months and months—and months and months—of emotional build-up, a great hope manifested itself in early November when Barack Obama was elected president. What a paridigm shift. “‘Good’ change is inevitable,” people cheered. And then ... the economy tanked sending out a ripple effect of fear that could be felt for some time. I say “could” because there are so many other alternatives to the way our minds—and hearts—can approach the current economic situation we’re living in. We can live through with fear, or, take another approach. I’m all for the latter. (Besides, when fear permeated the culture back in 2001-2003, it didn’t go down so well.) So, what are the alternatives. “Give,” I say. “Sure,” you reply. “With what?” To which I’d say, “With what you can.” Why am I telling you this? It’s that time of year, sure, but, truthfully—genuinely—I am captivated by the work of the four nonprofits we spotlight this year in our annual Community Fund issue. Every year, GT teams with the Community Foundation to shine the light on some of the area’s powerhouses. As always, the David and Lucille Packard Foundation will match your donations given to the Homeless Garden Project, WomenCare, SPIN and Second Harvest Food Bank. Last year’s tally, thanks to you, hit $60,000. I suspect it can be surpassed this year, a year that’s already ushered in its fair share of milestones and “miracles.”  —Greg Archer, Editor

Homeless Garden Project

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Where there once stood a liquor store at Depot Park in Santa Cruz, now stands a gift shop in which organic flowers form a welcome procession at the door. Poetic justice can smell so sweet.

That retail store—operated by, and offering products from the Homeless Garden Project (HGP)—exemplifies the nonprofit’s ability to transform people and places. Nobody knows this better than Michael (who prefers not to use his full name), a one-time business owner who became homeless two years ago after an injury led to his addiction to painkillers. A committed HGP trainee since April, he now studies horticulture at Cabrillo College and works a weekend job in addition to his 20 hours at the Project each week. Michael lives out of his van.

“It’s a paradise sanctuary,” Michael labels the HGP, which he merits as instilling in him a new confidence. “It took me from Ground Zero to being in a good space.”

Nearly two decades since its inception, the HGP is Santa Cruz County’s oldest Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), with low-income and homeless workers farming food for locals. And, it’s one of the first CSAs in the country to donate organic produce to low-income families each week, with all profits from both the CSA clientele and the gift shop keeping its successful programs running.

The Project’s influence is undeniable and it’s undeniably inspiring. Just take a walk around the HGP Natural Bridges farm, located at the edge of town on the Westside, and see if you, too, aren’t enamored with the rows of vibrant human spirits and vegetation you encounter.

“We’ve been branded as just working with homeless people, but we do so much more than that,” says Farm Director Paul Glowaski. “Issues of social, ecological, economic and food justice are the foundation of what we do. Our mission is the community.”

Situated on 2.5 acres of land generously donated by Barry Swenson, the farm’s location by the train tracks is symbolic. Fourteen homeless and low-income trainees work alongside volunteers—war veterans, college interns and four full-time staff members (all led by Darrie Ganzhorn, director of programs and operations). Meanwhile, schools, businesses and visitors pass through daily. The operation is a catalyst for the commingling of many extremes: The wealthy and the poor, elders and children, students and teachers, all lend their hands, hearts and minds to the cultivation of healthy lifestyles through organic farming.

Offering minimum wage to trainees who commit to a full year (three years maximum), the nonprofit has hosted more than 500 trainees since 1990. In addition to working on the farm, crafting products sold at the HGP Store, and arranging flowers given to hospice patients, they attend job workshops and field trips to other businesses. Trainees are considered graduates of the program when they can assimilate back into society as healthy self-sufficient people.

“We’re not just going to mask the problem and just put people into a shelter,” Glowaski says. “We’re giving people the opportunity to do something and be something different.”

Despite the fact that people from around the world come to observe the HGP as a model program to emulate, it still needs the support of the Santa Cruz community through donations, as well as purchases made at the HGP Store—now an ideal spot for holiday gift items.

With a goal for expansion by relocating the farm to a larger plot of land in the Pogonip, Glowaski’s concerned about these difficult economic times and the financial support needed to make that happen.

“It’s tough for nonprofits because people are unsure about the future,” he says. “We don’t want to be old news. How do we make ourselves sexy again so that more people see what we’re doing and support it?” | Linda Koffman

WomenCARE

miracleworkers4Eva Brunner has a favorite story about the near-death and sudden resurgence of WomenCARE this year. The new vice chair of the charity—which provides support and conversation groups at no charge for any woman afflicted with any form of cancer, as well as family and friends of cancer patients—says her favorite story has to do with an article the Santa Cruz Sentinel ran on May 20 about the organization going broke and needing to lay off three staff members. “The day after that article came out, we came to the office and found that people had thrown money through the mail slot on the door.” he says. “There were checks just littering the floor. That indicated to everybody that the community would not accept WomenCARE closing.”

The old board made its decision to close based on finances, but there was too much willpower to let money stand in the way. LaVerne Coleman, who was the director of volunteer staff at the time, and Allison Titley, who was serving as office manager, have since stepped forward to act as co-directors. A new board was forged, and WomenCARE managed to weather the storm without cancelling a single meeting. “Most of our clients never knew there was any trouble,” Coleman says.

The transition was a gutsy one. Coleman and Titley called a community meeting at Louden Nelson Center and literally had a sign-up sheet for board members. “That isn’t normally the way you do a board,” she admits, “but it worked. And we got tremendous help from the community. Steven Slade, the development director at Santa Cruz Land Trust, put together a strategic plan process for us, giving 160 hours of his own time, and [was] still willing to help some more.”

“With his help, we put together an appeal letter that brought in a lot of money,” Brunner says. “It’s because of the strategic plan, the appeal letter, the new board, and the solid staff; the Community Foundation was constantly quizzing us to see how we were doing, and we continually impressed them. So they’ve kept giving us support.”

Indeed, sources of funding never faltered, and only seemed to gain strength after the crisis. In addition to the big in-house fundraiser—the 12th annual “Strike Out Against Cancer” bowling day that raised $45,000 this October—the group had several interesting fundraisers happen on their behalf: the Santa Cruz Hash House Harriers dedicated its annual Red Dress Run to the group, the Santa Cruz Roller Girls dedicated a bout, San Francisco Cheer passed the bucket for the group at Pride, and many individuals have come forward to keep the floor littered with checks. But it’s not over yet. “We’re still in a renewal process,” says Brunner. “The programs haven’t faltered, but we need to continue to improve structure and find sustainable funding.”

The appeal for money and time would not have been so successful, however, if WomenCARE weren’t an organization with such deep roots in the community, thanks to the meaningful, life-changing services it provides. As we are talking in the group’s office at 1001 41st Avenue, a woman comes into reception looking for “the book”—a directory of businesses and service providers who have agreed to give discounts or freebies to WomenCARE clients—as well as information about the groups. Titley says the client base is up 25 percent on the year. “The structure has always been solid,” she says. “We’re here to serve women.”

One of those women is Nancy Redwine. “One of the most devastating aspects of having cancer—and I was diagnosed with stage four advanced metastatic cancer three years ago, and I’ve been in a support group here most of that time—is being faced with isolation,” she says. “I had to leave my job. I had to stop doing many of the things that gave my life meaning.

“The support group here meets every week, and having a place where I’m met with other women dealing with the same issues, and being able to offer service to each other and the community, is huge.” she adds. “I have something to do, somewhere to go, people I’m responsible to every week.”

Redwine is the Arm-in-Arm group for advanced recurrent metastatic cancer patients, which is the official name, though she says they refer to themselves as the “gutsy women.”

“We come together and check in, then settle on a topic,” she says. “Like anger, or stupid things that people say to us, or losses we face, or how to deal with doctors. We laugh a lot. A lot. We have a holiday party, and we go to memorial services together. It has been a life line for me.”

WomenCARE has also branched out into the Latina community, with Entre Nosotras, a network of groups for Spanish-speaking women with cancer. “We do outreach in the Beach Flats,” Brunner says, “and are serving primarily under-insured or uninsured women, which brings a whole different set of problems to the table.” She says three of their 89 Spanish-speaking clients have private insurance. The group offers translators and transportation as well, which is important to the Latina community given that Watsonville Community Hospital recently closed its oncology department.

Michelle Ney, the group’s new board chair, says WomenCARE has a lot of needs this year, in order to continue providing services the community so clearly demands. “Things that fund us over the long term are grants and so on,” Ney says. “But if you don’t have staff to write the grants, you’re crippled in that sense, and that’s the kind of thing that will lay a stronger foundation for us.”

Coleman says, “It’s just impossible for us to close the doors. So it’s up to us to find the money to make this work.” | Chris J. Magyar

Special Parents Information Network (SPIN)

miracleworkers5When Khloe Kulpa was born, her father, Ken, casually asked the doctor if everything was OK. He received some surprising news. “See how her face is a bit flatter,” the doctor said. “She has no arch of a nose and her ears are lower, and there’s an extra flap of skin behind her neck. She has all the signs of …” The pause that followed was painfully long as Ken waited to hear the words “Down syndrome.”

“It was a tough couple of days,” Ken admits, of his daughter first entering the world. “But we were put in touch with a family that had a Down syndrome child,” by way of a local non-profit, Special Parents Information Network (SPIN) , which assists parents of children with special needs, ranging from down syndrome to dyslexia and anything in between. “The next day a family came out with their Down syndrome child that was two months old. It was great to see that we were not alone. It was great to meet other people because at the time we felt like outcasts and loners. Other families are going through the same issues.”

From there, they entered a complicated world, trying to navigate school systems and more to meet the needs of Khloe. This was a vastly different route than Ken went through with his first child who was without special needs. And that’s where SPIN really became useful.

“SPIN offers a lot of seminars,” Ken says. “One [seminar] is how to sit with teachers and map out an education plan for your child. SPIN helps you become an advocate for your child. It offers a mentoring program [and more].”

The agency, which has two offices—one in downtown Santa Cruz and the other in Watsonville, offers services to 2,000 families in Santa Cruz and San Benito counties. SPIN basically “picks up the slack where the government is failing,” says executive director Cece Pinheiro. It operates on a $250,000 a year budget, and about $100,000 of that surfaces by way of fundraising (SPIN gets $158,000 from a state grant).

SPIN got its start in 1985 when a group of moms who had severely mentally challenged children with disabilities decided to band together. From there, they met other people like them and eventually in 1996 they gave their group the name “SPIN.” By 2000, SPIN became an official non-profit.

Money, of course, is needed in order for SPIN to help people like Ken and Khloe as they try to deal with the system, a system that doesn’t always know what to do with people like Khloe. But with SPIN, Ken has learned how to maneuver through obstacles, and in the process, he’s seen his daughter develop into a “great, bubbly, happy personality,” he says. “That’s why I crack up when people are concerned about having a child with special needs. To me, it can be a big joy in many ways. She’s very outgoing. But she noticeably looks different. If she’s at a park kids might shy away from her, and that kind of breaks my heart. All she says is, ‘Hi guys. Want to play?’ She has feelings just like us.”

By assisting SPIN, you’re helping Ken, Khloe and so many other families in need. Monies that are raised this year will likely go to a mentor/parent program, numerous workshops, updating a resource guide for parents, even copy paper—the contributions keep SPIN ticking and in turn keep people like Khloe smiling and saying, “Hi guys. Want to play?” | Christa Martinmiracleworkers6

Second Harvest Food Bank

With one yank of the long yellow rope that hangs from the warehouse ceiling, the doors of Second Harvest Food Bank ’s new produce cooler magically glide open, revealing 36 cubic feet of chilled storage space.

Tomorrow, Willy Elliott-McCrea, Second Harvest’s executive director, will be attending a ceremony at Seascape Resort to receive the Aptos Man of the Year award for his work combating local hunger. But today, in the 38-degree cooler, all delight in titles and glories are eclipsed by his gushing excitement about the food bank’s latest toy. He walks from each pallet of food to the next, running his hand above the green apples and showing off a giant donation of juicy raspberries. The cooler will help them accommodate for the 3.5 million pounds of produce the organization will handle this year—a much needed addition considering that number was only 1 million four years ago.

Elliot-McCrea moves from the cooler to the new freezer next to it, which reaches five below zero in temperature. He proudly shares that the freezer is storing a bounty of chickens, turkeys and hams that will soon be helping local low-income families celebrate the holidays in style.

Formed in 1972, Second Harvest was the first food bank in California and the second in the nation. Elliott-McCrea came on board in 1978 as a driver and has been along for an interesting ride ever since. He’s witnessed the organization’s efforts more than triple. The food bank currently distributes close to $4 million worth of food per year. But, in the wake of hardships like the global food crisis and the national economic frenzy, the food bank has seen these numbers spike in recent months.

“The number of people that Second Harvest and our local network of agencies is feeding has gone up 30 percent in the last 12 months,” he says. “That has been driven by the global food crisis and what we’ve see in the last six weeks with the middle-class meltdown.”

The Second Harvest team is tackling what it hopes will be its biggest Holiday Food Drive yet, as it needs to raise at least 1.8 million pounds of food to carry it through 2009, according to Elliott-McCrea. The group hopes that the whole community will help address increased local need.

“We know that it is going to be a tough year, and the way we’ve always gotten through a tough year is through shared sacrifice,” he adds. “Everyone is hurting. If everyone in this community contributed something, there would be enough to get us through. It’s about locking arms together.”

This holiday season, Elliott-McCrea, along with all Second Harvest employees and volunteers, wishes that whoever can, will volunteer or help to fill one of the hundreds of holiday food drive bins around town. But they also hope that no one will be afraid to ask for help.

“Hunger tends to be invisible, but it hits every neighborhood in Santa Cruz,” he says. “What this current economic meltdown is showing us is that it might hit you, or it has hit you. Folks who never imagined that they would need Second Harvest have lost their homes, lost their jobs, they are bewildered and confused. They don’t know where to turn.”

For these reasons and many more, 2008 has been an especially busy year for Second Harvest. It began as an expansion project that will take them from 14,000- to 32,000-square-feet, phase one of which got the cooler and freezer up and running. It also announced they are “going green,” which includes steps like installing solar panels to help save on utility costs and make the food bank more environmentally friendly. They’re growing, refurbishing, running a slue of programs and events, and helping record numbers of people. So don’t expect things at Second Harvest to slow down anytime soon. Elliot-McCrea puts it this way: “No day is dull around the food bank.”  | Elizabeth Limbach

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The Peace Equation

Sunday is the United Nations’ International Day of Peace, a global peace-building day when nations, leaders, governments, communities and individuals are invited to end conflict, cease hostilities, creat 24 hours of non-violence and promote goodwill. Monday is Autumn equinox as the Sun enters Libra (right relations with all of life). The Soul Year now begins. We work in the dark part of the year (Persephone underground) preparing for the new light of winter solstice. Tuesday to Wednesday is the Virgo new moon festival. We know two things about peace. “The absence of war does not signify peace.” And “Peace is an ongoing process.” In its peace-building emphasis, the UNIDP, through education, attempts to create a “culture of peace, understanding and tolerance”. Esoterically we are reminded of the peace equation: “Intentions for goodwill (and acting upon this intention) create right relations with all earth’s kingdoms which create (the ongoing process of) peace on earth.” At noon on Sunday, in all time zones, millions of participating groups will observe a moment of silence for peace on earth. Bells will ring, candles will be lit, and doves released as the New Group of World Servers recite the Great Invocation (humanity’s mantram of direction). To connect with others around the world see www.cultureofpeace.org    Let us join together with the mother (Virgo). Goodwill to all, let peace prevail on earth. The dove is the symbol for the day.
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