This time of year, with its ubiquitous images of happy families and gift giving, can be especially difficult for people who are alone or don’t have the means to buy presents. But a little-known 106-year-old local fund aims to bring those people some holiday cheer every December.
On Thursday, volunteers from the Berkeley Holiday Fund sent out 1,081 small checks to needy families and individuals all around Berkeley, said Linda Williams, who serves as co-chair of the fund, along with her husband Andrew Williams.
Check amounts range from $45 to $200, depending on circumstances. Most individuals will receive smaller checks, while large families or families with great need can receive up to $200, Williams said. This year the fund wrote checks for a total of about $73,500.
“The check serves a double purpose,” said Williams. Besides being money that they can do something with, it “helps them feel they’re not alone, that they’re part of a community,” she said.
Williams quoted from thank-you letters sent by several check recipients.
“Thank you for bringing a ray of sunshine into my life…. At the age of 80-plus, it makes you want to live a little longer.”
“One young [homeless] woman used the check to stay in a hotel on Christmas Eve,” Williams said. “She wrote that it was so good to feel safe and comfortable.”
In another letter, an elderly recipient wrote, “Thank you for bringing a ray of sunshine into my life…. At the age of 80-plus, it makes you want to live a little longer.”
“It meant a lot to me that you included me,” wrote another grateful recipient. “With this money I will be able to buy my family gifts.”
This annual philanthropic effort began in 1912, when the Berkeley Independent newspaper organized the Red Stocking fundraising drive. Its purpose was “to ensure that no child in Berkeley went without a Christmas gift,” according to a one-page history of the fund, which was first called the “Christmas Committee” and then the “Christmas Fund.” Originally volunteers delivered blankets, toys, clothes and food to needy families.
Over time it became clear that giving gifts in kind was impractical, and the group switched over to writing checks. In 1992 they changed their name to the Berkeley Holiday Fund, in order “to be more inclusive, and to acknowledge the diversity of the Berkeley population,” according to the fund’s website.
Each year the mayor’s office covers the cost of mailing the checks, and Mechanics Bank cashes the checks for free.
“The bank cashes over a thousand checks for people who will most likely never do business there,” Williams said via email. “It’s an impressive contribution to the community.”
Recipients must reside in Berkeley, and they must be recommended by one of the 30 different agencies and nonprofits that collaborate with the fund. Head Start, Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS), the Center for Independent Living (CIL), the health department, and the senior centers are among the 30 groups, according to the fund website. Staff members of those agencies each identify who among their clients “are really in the most serious need,” said Williams.
Grace Wright, the wellness program and senior services coordinator at CIL, has been helping pinpoint people to receive the holiday checks since about 2012. This tradition “helps us be a part of something very wonderful for the Berkeley community,” she said.
The need doesn’t necessarily have to be physical, Wright said. They choose some clients “if we think this would be an emotional boost.”
“It’s a way to let people know that there are people in this community who care and want you to have a lovely holiday,” Wright said. “This is a gift that keeps on giving.”
Judy Jackson, who was chosen by CIL, plans to use the money from her check to buy yarn and make gifts for the other residents of her 26-unit low-income apartment building. This year she’s crocheting small stockings for everyone. Jackson has also crocheted wall hangings with Christmas themes, to decorate the building’s community room.
“It helps it look and feel more like home,” Jackson said.
Jackson said she helps out with other seniors in Wright’s CIL programs.
“Grace has groups where she talks to seniors about Social Security and Medicare,” Jackson said. They meet in the community room. Jackson said that many seniors don’t want to talk to strangers, but she’s their neighbor, and they trust her.
And Jackson doesn’t stop there. Last year she traveled with Wright to Sacramento to fight for two different issues, getting a truck to bring fresh produce twice a month to senior centers in Berkeley, and getting EBT [Electronic Benefits Transfer] cards extended to SSI recipients, which will start next June.
“I used to be a schoolteacher and advocate for my students,” Jackson said. Now I advocate for seniors.”
Some of this year’s check recipients are homeless. They will receive their checks from the nonprofit or agency that nominated them.
Doris Mitchell felt “relieved” when she heard she would be getting a check through the Women’s Daytime Drop-in Center.
“I’m trying to settle some domestic legal issues. That’s really holding me back,” Mitchell said. “It’s hard just paying for copying.”
Mitchell also thought about using the money to obtain her birth certificate from New Jersey, which she needs in order to get Section 8.
Current co-chair Williams and her husband first learned of the Berkeley Holiday Fund not long after they moved to Berkeley decades ago.
“We got a letter from the Holiday Fund,” she said. “We liked the idea and sent a donation. They continued to send [annual] requests. I liked that it’s only one letter [a year], and that it’s all volunteer.”
The fund is run by a working board that holds a few meetings in late September and then organizes a networking meeting with the 30 agencies in October.
“We ask them to suggest some clients who they know will be in need during the holidays,” Williams said.
On two October afternoons mid-week, the board and other volunteers gather at the co-chairs’ house to stuff envelopes addressed to about 5,000 potential donors.
“Anyone who’s given in the last three years and anyone who’s new in Berkeley” gets a request, Williams said. Each year the board also mails letters to everyone in a chosen zip code. “We send out letters asking them to donate, and they do!”
“If you can make life better for some people some of the time, that’s worth doing.”
— Linda Williams
The donations received in 2017, $73,500, became the amount they sent out this week. Williams said they expect some money from donors to continue coming in through the early spring.
Despite its longevity, the Berkeley Holiday Fund seems to exist under the radar, perhaps in part because of soliciting donations just once a year.
“We sometimes joke that [the fund] is the best-kept secret in Berkeley,” said Williams.
The Berkeley Holiday Fund also offers money to cover small emergencies that arise throughout the year.
“We tell the 30 agencies that if they have needs that can be solved with less than $200, they can come to us with a request,” Williams said. “We can give them money within a day or two.”
“I’m impressed with the number of problems that come up in people’s lives that, with 200 dollars or less, can be solved,” Williams said.
For example, a woman who had been trained as a phlebotomist couldn’t afford the $100 for the certificate that provided proof of her training. Once she had it, though, with the help of money from the emergency fund, she could get a job. Money from the emergency fund has also gone to obtaining birth certificates, so that parents could register their child in school, or older people could receive Social Security.
Of course, the modest-sized holiday checks can’t fulfill every wish.
“I wish I had my own place; I’d buy some dinner and cook it,”said Simone Price, a recipient this year through the Women’s Daytime Drop-in Center. “If it was enough money, I’d go see my grandchildren” in North Carolina. As it is, Price said, “I might buy myself some clothes or take myself out to eat.”
“Berkeley Holiday Fund is a small thing in comparison with the enormous problems,” Williams said, “but if you can make life better for some people some of the time, that’s worth doing.”