CSA serves up gifts, groceries and help
Each year around the holidays, the Community Services Agency gets flooded with toys, clothing and canned goods — all donated from thoughtful people in Mountain View, Los Altos and Los Altos Hills. But November and December aren't the only months out of the year that the local organization provides food and assistance to those down on their luck.
"We're here year-round," said Tom Myers, executive director of CSA, which operates out of a two-story building at 204 Stierlin Road. And year round, the people come.
On Monday, about 15 people, young and old, stood in line, waiting to enter the CSA's market, which operates a lot like a grocery store — members come in and "shop" for canned and dry goods along with fresh produce. All of the food is free. But unlike some organizations in the Bay Area, which don't give the needy as much choice in the food they receive, those who qualify to receive benefits from the Community Services Agency are allowed to choose their own groceries.
Gifts for kids
During the holidays, CSA members with youngsters are allowed to come in and "shop" for gifts. The CSA has amassed two large rooms, filled with stuffed animals, pajamas, blankets, board games and toys for both boys and girls.
Allowing CSA members to choose their own groceries and gifts is about "dignity for the clients," Myers said. It helps the people maintain the sense that they are in control of their lives, in a situation that often leaves people feeling lost, broken and helpless.
"There is so much more stress on people during the holidays," Myers said, and that is doubly true for those who are out of work or on the brink of homelessness. In many ways, he said the CSA's gift program is not about the kids at all, he said. It is about giving people the chance to not have to explain why Santa won't be coming this year.
It is precisely for this kind of work that the Community Services Agency was chosen to be among the handful of local organizations to benefit from the Voice's Holiday Fund. Donations from readers and local foundations will go to benefit the CSA and six other charitable organizations in Mountain View.
The CSA, which was founded in 1957 by a group of Mountain View residents, has grown over the years to provide many services to its clientele. Members, who must demonstrate that they are in need of assistance, are also given help filling out unemployment paperwork, getting subsidized public transportation and finding jobs, and can even qualify for one-time rent assistance to help them get through a particularly difficult month.
Shirley Mustain lives in Los Altos on a monthly Social Security payment of $563. She owns her home, but still has to pay utilities, put gas in her car and feed herself. Mustain recently underwent a $124,000 hip surgery and is paying a hospital bill every month. The retired Mustain buys all her groceries at the CSA and says that she doesn't know how she would afford to eat otherwise.
"It's so needed," she said of the CSA.
And then there is Rhona Shans, who is "almost homeless" and living with a friend.
"I'm not even embarrassed," said Shans, who is unemployed for the first time after working for the past 30 years. "Times are tough."
She estimated that she has saved $400 in November thanks to the CSA. Last month she got all of her food at the CSA, along with a free bus pass. "That's money I don't have," Shans said. "Without this place I don't know what I would do."