Mountain View Voice

News - December 30, 2011

Filling bellies, and stockings

Community Services Agency offers food, toys, services to struggling families

by Anna Li

Holiday shopping can be stressful — long lines and messy merchandise often take the fun away from gift-giving. But the families waiting in line to enter the Community Services Agency (CSA) on a chilly Saturday morning are far from frustrated. In fact, most faces in the crowd look excited at the prospect of finding toys for their children during this holiday season.

Inside CSA, volunteers and staff are working without breaks to organize the toy drive. As they expect over 90 families in the morning and 80 families in the afternoon, they have stocked the toy room and food pantry with as many goodies as they could fit into the modest building on Stierlin Road. As a Voice Holiday Fund recipient, donations from readers will benefit CSA's programs, including the holiday toy drive and food pantry.

CSA staff has been preparing for months for their toy drive. Most of the food, toys and pajamas donations came from local churches, schools, fire stations and families in the community.

Pre-registered members have the chance to pick food, small gifts and toys for their children. CSA estimates that the Holiday Sharing Program, which draws the most volunteers and community efforts of all CSA programs, helps more than 500 families and 1,000 children every year.

Erica Ivone, a member of CSA, looks forward to giving her children a merrier Christmas with the help of CSA.

"In this economy, you're a student. Your family is single income and your spouse's paycheck goes to rent. If you have $50 left, you have to compromise," says Ivone. "As a parent, you think what do they need? Good shoes and warm food. So this is where we get our toys."

The economic downturn has made it harder for her to give toys for her children when she is already struggling to provide her daughters with their basic needs. She explains that CSA's toy drive gives her children a normal Christmas so she does not have to explain to them why Santa will not be coming down their chimney this year.

Ivone first heard about CSA through her daughter's preschool teacher. After demonstrating her need for assistance, she says she found invaluable support for housing, food and health insurance through CSA, she said.

Ivone says that she is most grateful for the opportunities that her children have because of CSA. Her kids could not take part in after-school activities because money was short. CSA gave her a referral so that her children could participate in sporting activities.

"It gives your child something to do instead of being stuck at home doing nothing or getting in trouble," says Ivone.

In fact, Ivone says that she encourages her children to get involved in the community.

"I wish my kids could come here to volunteer so they can see that it's not just about receiving. It's also about giving."

CSA does not allow members to volunteer at the nonprofit. However, Ivone's children went caroling in the neighborhood with their church to give back to the community this year.

Most of CSA program would not be possible without the help of volunteers. The Buhr family dedicated the day to volunteering at CSA. The parents first heard about CSA's toy drive through their participation in the National Charity League. This is the second year that the parents have brought their two children to collect and distribute toys to the community.

Nancy Buhr says that she and her daughter, Samantha, 13, feel grateful that they have the opportunity to give to others during the Christmas season.

"We believe so strongly in CSA's role in the community. We also support their food drive," says Nancy.

"It makes me feel good helping others. It makes me appreciate what I have," says Samantha.

Alison Hopkins, the director of volunteers, has worked at CSA for seven years since November 2004. She participates in every food drive, toy drive and outreach program. Seeing families like the Buhrs volunteering is what makes her work worthwhile, she says.

"Working with a group of people passionate about helping people is a really positive environment," says Hopkins.

CSA was started in 1957 by a group of Mountain View residents who were concerned about the challenges that low-income families and migrant farm workers were facing in Mountain View. Over five decades later, the nonprofit now opens its doors to the elderly, the homeless, the working poor and the unemployed in Mountain View, Los Altos and Los Altos Hills.

The organization expanded its services to offer emergency housing assistance, counseling referrals, food and nutrition programs and senior services.

Throughout the year, CSA has a food pantry where members can come and "shop" for canned goods, dry food and produce, just like at a grocery store. All the food is free and comes from year-round donations from individuals and supermarkets like Trader Joe's and Safeway.

The holiday season is always a busy time for the nonprofit. They offer families the chance to give their children a Christmas during tough economic times.

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