“It’s OK to ask for help, because we all need help now and then.”

–    John Records, executive director, the Committee on the Shelterless.

PETALUMA

More than 600 people showed up for a 7:30 a.m. breakfast here on Wednesday. And they weren’t lined up to tryout for a TV reality show.

These Petalumans rose before dawn to support an organization that helps people in trouble rebuild their lives.

Americans live in uneasy times, buffeted by economic reverses and uncertainty about the future. Many are disillusioned.

But here were 600 people ready to pursue their ideals – while also endorsing the good works of the Committee on the Shelterless, the community institution that Petalumans know as COTS.

“Part of the story is that amid the gloom and doom, there are these powerful gatherings of folks who care and believe positive change is possible,” John Records, the longtime executive director of COTS told me. “(They believe that) things matter, that people can be helped.”

In this Thanksgiving week, we should be thankful for the energy, generosity and compassion of folks like these. Over the next few years, it will be their faith that allows communities to weather the adversities and move beyond the discouragements of recent times.

Last week I talked to Records, David Goodman of the Redwood Empire Food Bank and Eunice Valentine of the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County about the state of our world. All three are executive directors of community agencies with proven track records.

COTS provided shelter for more 1,000 people last year, a third of them children. Eighty-three percent of the families who visited the shelter were transitioned to permanent housing. Eight-nine per cent of the people in transitional housing found jobs.

The Food Bank feeds 70,000 people a month and annually delivers more than 12 million pounds of food.

The Volunteer Center last year turned out 8,000 volunteers who performed 330,000 hours of community service.

The first thing to report is that none of these leaders harbors illusions about an early conclusion to the current turmoil. More people are homeless, jobless and hungry. Since the economic downturn began, the number of families needing help from the Food Bank has increased 40 percent.

And resources are shrinking. Burdened by declining revenues and years of political dysfunction, state government is retreating from its responsibilities.  Many businesses and individuals can’t afford to share as much as they did in the past – while others are holding back because of anxieties about what the future may bring.

“I would guess we’re going to be wobbly for a while,” said Records.

For the foreseeable future, government will not be a reliable partner.

When I talked to Goodman by phone, he was in Washington, testifying to a Congressional committee about a senior meals program that imposes cash penalties if the Food Bank exceeds its allotment and feeds too many low-income seniors. Said Goodman: “That’s tragic to me, that’s absurd.”

With government increasingly dominated by special interest groups, many talented people are finding that volunteerism offers a more effective and satisfying way to make a difference in their communities. That’s why 600 people jammed into an auditorium in Petaluma last week.

We are learning from the adversity.

-We’re learning, for example, not to stigmatize people in trouble.

“Everyone I know has been touched by this economic downturn,” Goodman said, “People who did everything right now find themselves unemployed and struggling – even in the most well-to-do families . . . Statistics are one thing, but you don’t forget the personal experience.”

-We’re learning that community agencies need to become more efficient because reducing redundancies and streamlining services means more help for the people the program was supposed to help.

At the Volunteer Center, Valentine last week convened a meeting of local non-profit leaders to identify “new ways of thinking and working.”

“Let’s not waste a crisis,” she advised them.

In another meeting of non-profit executives, she said, “there was more energy than discouragement or profound depression. There was recognition that we have to change.”

-We’re learning that people want to help.

In support of the food bank, a Healdsburg winery established an employee incentive program that raised $20,000.  Workers at Sutter Hospital asked their employer to waive a $20 holiday gift certificate and give the money to the Food Bank instead. It turned into a gift of $10,000.

At the Volunteer Center, people who recently lost their jobs are showing up to volunteer. “They’re coming off their sofas,” said Valentine, “and saying they’re not going to sit home and be depressed.”

-Finally, we’re learning the excesses of recent years were just that.

Said Records: “I confess to feeling that maybe it would be good for us to learn to live within our means.”

Records and Goodman also asked us to remember that the people we help are not strangers. They are our neighbors and friends, our children and parents, the folks who work at nearby stores and offices and farms, and who volunteer at the neighborhood school.

“As a community and a society we don’t get it both ways,” Goodman said, “You have to care for the people.”