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The Spirit of Giving: The Napa community's inspiring response to hard times

The Spirit of Giving: The Napa community's inspiring response to hard times

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During the most challenging time that most of us can remember, it is encouraging to see that the desire to help others is alive and well in our community. The following are but a few examples of Napa’s compassion and generosity.

The Christmas Day store

While the rain pelted down on them Christmas morning, masked volunteers carried bundles from their cars to the only place around that was protected from the rain — a covered baseball dugout in Kennedy Park. There, they set up a free store with blankets, jackets and many other items useful for people during cold weather.

“For you, the people living at Kennedy Park, Merry Christmas from the many in the Napa community. Please take what you need,” said a sign posted there.

“Don’t forget to wear masks,” cautioned another sign.

The idea for a free store came about when Victoria Nelson, who has been walking in Kennedy Park five days a week for 20 years, saw a few tents there on a recent walk. After making inquiries, she learned there are now about 100 “nice, not rowdy people” living there. She ended her walk determined to help them.

Two weeks before Christmas Nelson, a 76-year-old former business owner made a post on Next Door Neighbor that she had set up a blue bin for donations for “people living at Kennedy Park.”

“I was shocked at the generosity of our Napa community. Maybe it is because life has been so hard for people this year,” Nelson said. “I can’t tell you how many people brought things to the bin at least four or five times a day. I was sorting every day.”

For two weeks, Nelson did nothing but sort through the many donations that were continually being left in the bin at her home.

“There were about 200 scarves — many handmade and brand new in gorgeous colors. There were also knit hats, lots of socks, playing cards, tights, and a big bin of miscellaneous stuff — hand sanitizers, toothbrushes and toothpaste, shampoo soap, warm jackets and coats, vests, outerwear, lots of masks and towels and about 20 blankets and even some brand-new handmade quilts,” she said.

In addition to people anonymously leaving gifts in her bin, many people reached out to Nelson asking to help. A schoolteacher donated $200 toward the purchase of sandwiches for a Christmas meal. A retired teacher made 320 decorated Christmas cookies for the same meal. Others arranged to help Nelson haul and unload donations for the free store.

Nelson, who has a background in retail and had been a partner in Napa’s former Witter’s Tea and Coffee store plus a bedding store in Yountville, directed the volunteers to arrange things as attractively as if it were a permanent store.

Among the items put into the dugout was a whole box of hand warmers that last eight hours long.

As the volunteers hung coat hangers with warm clothing on the cyclone fence encasing the dugout, the display almost took on the look of a high-end store. A red coat was paired with a grey scarf. Labeled boxes were arranged on the benches. Many pairs of shoes were placed underneath the benches. There was even a pair of brand-new Dansk shoes.

“I’m so glad Victoria got this started. I had been thinking about doing the same thing,” said Francis Brady, one of the volunteers as she carried new handmade quilts she had made from her car to the dugout. Brady, a versatile artist who does everything by hand, had lost all her own belongings — even her pottery studio — not that long ago in the Atlas Peak fire.

“I’ll never forget escaping the Atlas Peak fire with flames on both sides of the car,” Brady said. “I had my dog and some clothes in the back of the car. I am thankful I have something to give now.”

When they finished, all but two volunteers went home. Nelson and a friend put the 110 Christmas sack meals onto a cart and began delivering them and telling people to go to the free dugout store. Each sack held a sandwich, cookies, fruit, hard candy and bottles of water.

When Nelson asked people in the park if they are living there, some responded to her by saying, “currently.”

“I avoid using the word homeless because I don’t want to label people. I’ve talked with people living there,” Nelson said. “This is not forever for them.”

The following day, when Nelson went back to the dugout to clean up and collect anything that was leftover, she found only two bare coat hangers and a couple of signs.

“That really warmed my heart. The whole thing from beginning to end was positive,” she said. “People gave from their hearts. Everyone was working like little Santa’s helpers; everyone was doing their part. It restored my faith. The Napa community opened its heart. It’s a world I want to live in.”

Several days later Nelson was surprised to discover that donations for the people at Kennedy Park were still coming in. When she opened her door, she found new shoes. The following day there were two huge bags of warm ski type items.

“It isn’t stopping,” she said. “These bags were so full that I can’t even imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger being able to lift them. There will be another free store there and also some food.”

Never too old to help others

On December 13, the day before her 91st birthday Rachel Friedman did something that nobody who knows her “could ever imagine” her doing. Along with her good friend Paulette Litz, 71, she performed musically in a fundraising concert.

The two friends did a virtual ukulele concert through Zoom in hopes of raising $500 for the Napa Food Bank. Much to their surprise, the concert has raised $10,050 as of December 30 and donations are still coming in.

According to Shirley King, coordinator of Napa Food Bank, the money they raised will serve approximately 8,000 meals.

“I don’t know how this happened. We thought if we made $500 that was good,” Friedman said in a phone interview. “This is one of the highlights of my life. How do you get to feed that many people?”

Friedman used to volunteer to serve meals to those in need at the Table when it was operating, she said.

“I feel so bad for the people who are homeless. Many people are there not of their own doing,” she said. “People need to eat all year long. Not just at Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

“I’m totally blown away by the generosity of people if you give them a chance to give,” she said. “It just takes somebody to start it.”

Litz and Friedman have been friends for three decades. They both worked for the Napa Preschool Special Ed Program for the Napa County Office of Education. Friedman was a teacher and Litz was a speech therapist. Now retired, they have many hobbies in common—Mah Jong and ukulele, walking and volunteering.

Over the years, Friedman has done many things. She was an elementary education teacher for three decades. In addition, she taught hundreds of adults how to play Mah Jong through her classes. She even volunteered to serve in the Israeli army for a few weeks. What those who know her well never thought she would do is what she did this year — sing and play ukulele for an audience.

“Singing and playing music in front of people is hard for me because I’m shy,” Friedman said. “People thought I wouldn’t do this. I don’t think my son ever thought I’d do it. My son donated $3.000 but he didn’t want his name mentioned.”

Friedman said that she has been working on learning the ukulele off and on for a long time but never stayed with it long enough to be good at it. She took lessons with Gordon Lustig at Beth Shalom Synagogue and the Napa Parks and Recreation. Her musical history includes singing with her students and “trying” piano and autoharp. She also enjoyed African drums and Taiko drumming and went to many drum camps.

“The ukulele was the easiest. I could find four strings,” Friedman said with a laugh. “Credit for this goes to Gordon Lustig. He is the world’s best teacher.”

“It was so interesting to do this fundraising concert because we didn’t enter this with any ego,” Litz said in a phone interview. “Rachel mentioned doing a concert to a few of her friends who encouraged us. We just invited family and friends — not even friends of friends.”

“This goes to show that when given the opportunity to help others in need, people just responded like gangbusters,” Litz continued. “We sent about 200 invitations. It was pretty remarkable. Some people who listened to our concert from areas outside of Napa made donations to their own food banks afterward.”

Since the pandemic began the two friends have been a source of strength for each other. They meet through Zoom to play the ukulele each evening.

As it has been for everyone, this has been an especially difficult year for them. Litz lost her younger sister after open-heart surgery. Friedman has struggled with living alone and staying safe as she is in the most vulnerable age group.

“I didn’t realize how much being with Rachel would be such an anchor for me,” Litz said. “We’re both sociable. Being able to count on doing ukulele together has meant so much.”

Toys for Tots

Like regular employees, four local volunteers worked full time — sometimes putting in as much as 11 hours a day — to make sure no child in Napa County would go without a Christmas present.

This year approximately 1,200 families were served through the Napa County Holiday Assistance Program of which Toys for Tots is a part. That is about 200 more families than last year, according to Napa Salvation Army Captain Roger McCort.

Each morning since Dec. 4, Pete and Diane Dexter and Ted and Karen Kiess would arrive at the old, Japan Air Lines office, adjacent to the Napa Airport and work until dinner time.

They sorted toys by age group and then took each family’s paper and tried to find toys to match each request. With family size varying from one to six children the volunteers were scrambling to meet each child’s request.

“If a child asked for a Barbie doll, I found one,” said Diane Dexter. “It was time-consuming. In the past, the parents came in and selected the gifts for their children.

Because of the pandemic, there were many challenges this year for volunteers. How do you go about acquiring the toys and setting the operation up and also stay in compliance with the CDC health guidelines?

“The only way to do that is to create a little bubble where you are only working with the same people,” Diane Dexter said. “We knew we had to look out for the safety of ourselves and our clients.”

“Usually, our toys come from barrels that have been put inside businesses but this year that couldn’t be done,” Dexter said. “People were told on the Toys for Tots website to drop toys off at fire stations.

The community was very generous. For example, bicycles, complete with helmets and locks, were donated by Silverado Women’s Golf Association and Striking Ladies.

In addition to toys, people also donated money for gift cards.

“If we didn’t have the toy a child requested, we gave them a gift card,” Dexter said. “It was a huge community effort.”

This year, people had to be kept apart so volunteers had to bag the toys and then take them outside to the parents who were waiting in their cars.

On distribution days, Dec. 18 and 19, several more volunteers came to help.

“We wouldn’t have been able to do this without the generosity of the community,” Dexter said. “Napa really pulls together.”

The Spirit of Giving

Many businesses and educators throughout Napa were generous during the holidays in a variety of ways.

As an example, instead of accepting payment for services, New Life Auto Salon encouraged customers to buy presents for children. When Lori Haugen was there ready to make a payment, she was told there was no charge and shown cards from the Angel Tree for Foster Children and told that she could contribute to it if she wanted. The ages and special requests of children were on the cards.

Haugen was impressed with how specific the requests were, which allowed each child to receive “what they asked Santa for.” She immediately bought the special Star Wars Lego set that a boy had requested and brought it back to New Life Auto Salon.

During a discussion about holiday traditions with his fifth-grade class, Art Howson discovered that one of his students wasn’t going to have Christmas this year.

“I knew this wonderful family and it broke my heart when the mom requested a $25 Walmart gift card. This request is totally uncommon for this family. They just fell behind,” Howson said.

Howson reached out to the student’s mother and told her he wanted to help and asked what her three children wanted. The mother responded that “anything” was fine but her 4-year-old really liked Spider-Man.

“I told her to take a couple of days and make a list of what the kids really wanted and needed,” he said. “After prodding, she came back with a list that included shoes and sweat clothes.”

Howson and his own 11-year-old twins threw themselves into shopping for this family. They bought six presents for each of the three children. Two other teachers who knew the family also got involved. Chloe Faris bought gifts for the parents and filled five large Christmas stockings for the family. Barbara Linch donated school supplies.

“When the mom drove up, I had my car decorated with all of the gifts. She thought I’d have just a handful of small gifts. She was so grateful, Howson said. “I told her that’s how I know Santa still exists.”

“I think the general public has no idea that teachers often fill in where parents can’t, whether it’s school supplies, extra food, field trip money, costs, shoes, etc.,” Howson continued. “I’m just glad that in some small way, families such as this one can still feel included and not forgotten.”

While the spirit of giving brought cheer to those who received holiday gifts, it also brought joy to those who gave. Victoria Nelson, who organized the free baseball dugout Christmas store and meals, shared how it made her feel.

“This has been by far truly the most rewarding Christmas I’ve had in over 20 years,” Nelson said. “I sincerely feel the kindness and love of the people donating. I’m in the middle of it. I am like the vessel.”

“For our families, we give because it is expected. This is different,” Nelson continued. “It feels pure to do this.

CHECK OUT: HEART OF THE VALLEY: MEET OUTSTANDING MEMBERS OF THE NAPA COMMUNITY

Heart of the Valley: Meet outstanding members of the Napa County community

Each year the Napa Valley Register runs a series of community profiles to shine a spotlight on unsung individuals whose actions have made a difference in the lives of others in Napa County.

WATCH NOW: MASSIVE HOLIDAY FOOD LINES REVEAL THE DEEP ECONOMIC TOLL OF THE PANDEMIC

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