We might not think we see them, but we do. We pass them in the aisles at the grocery store, kneel next to them at church, and sit in traffic with them during rush hour.
They’re the Upvalley’s poor population, and this is a tough time of year for them.
Many of them work seasonal hourly jobs – tending vineyards, washing dishes at restaurants, cleaning hotel rooms – that slow down during the winter. An increasing number of them are seniors scraping by on Social Security and occasionally having to choose between buying medicine or food.
The staff at the UpValley Family Centers (UVFC) knows the poor population better than anyone, which makes them well-qualified to handle the Upvalley component of the countywide Holiday Assistance Program. The UVFC works with partners such as Pacific Union College, the St. Helena Catholic Church’s St. Vincent de Paul Society, Cal Mart and others to collect donations and coordinate volunteer efforts.
The UVFC has established a GoFundMe page (gofundme.com/upvalleyfamilycentersofnapacounty.com) with a goal of collecting $175,000 by Dec. 16, when they’ll distribute baskets of food, gift cards and Christmas toys for the kids to 350 needy families on the family centers’ list. The average basket is worth $250, and the UVFC would like to bring that number up a little and still have some left over for emergency assistance in 2017.
This isn’t welfare, and it’s not intended as a permanent solution. According to UVFC Executive Director Jenny Ocon and boardmember Karen Cakebread, the program serves people who are going through a rough spot, either because their work hours have been cut back during the off-season when agriculture and hospitality slow down, or because they are seniors on fixed incomes.
Don’t let housing prices fool you – there are many poor people among us. According to the U.S. Census, about 12 percent of Upvalley residents live below the federal poverty level. In other words, if you saw 10 random locals today, chances are at least one of them was struggling financially. About 75 percent of the families the UVFC serves have household incomes below $40,000.
That often means multiple families living in overcrowded rental housing. Affordable housing projects help, but they’re not sufficient to meet demand. One family recently got an apartment at Hunt’s Grove in St. Helena after seven years on the waiting list.
Calistoga’s mobile home parks show that the problem isn’t limited to working families. Sixty percent of the seniors there are considered low-income, and 20 percent live solely on Social Security.
The money the UVFC collects will go directly to families – no overhead, administration or salaries. If successful, the fund drive will add 10 percent to the nonprofit’s $1.7 million annual budget.
Lots of nonprofits are competing for your money right now. We understand that money is tight, and St. Helenans are going to be under even more financial stress when water and sewer rates start going up next year.
However, most of us could afford $25 to help out a family – a neighbor, more likely than not – that would otherwise have an awfully grim Christmas. Even donations as low as $5 are accepted. Every dollar matters.
We might not think we see them, but we do. They are part of our community. They are us.
Let’s do more than just wish them a Merry Christmas. Let’s help them have one.
(The Star is the Calistogan’s sister paper. Norma Ferriz, an editorial board member who works for the UpValley Family Centers, did not participate in the writing of this editorial.)