Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Genevieve Geyser makes Christmas merrier for SY Valley's neediest

Genevieve Geyser starts preparing for Christmas in July. She's not an obsessive early shopper looking for gifts for family and friends. Geyser is in charge of the Christmas Basket Program at Old Mission Santa Ines.
An all-volunteer effort more than 25 years old, the annual Christmas Basket Program (CBP) provides gifts and essential food items for the Valley's working poor. This year, 156 families with a total of 637 people received assistance. 
"It was started by some women who recognized there were parish families who needed help at Christmas," Geyser said. "Later, Michelle Streeter really put it on the map getting it very organized, and when she was preparing to move out of the Valley in 2010, she asked me to take it over."
Geyser is loathe to assume much credit for the program, instead referring to the many volunteers who assist with the organizing and packing, and the many individuals and businesses who donate to it.
Families interested in benefiting from CBP must live in the Valley, be below a certain income level and have minor children. Each family is vetted. Income tax returns, pay stubs and the like are required.
"When I took it over I wanted the program to have a formal application process," Geyser said. "I want to be able to assure our donors and supporters about who they are assisting. These are the working poor. They work in the hospitality industry and in the vineyards. Their kids go to school here. These people are members of our community. They are not lazy people. They just need a hand up during the holidays."
Qualified families are "adopted" by donors, not by name but by an assigned number that designates how many adults and children are in the household and their clothing sizes.
Donors then deliver large boxes filled with the customized selection of wrapped gifts to Old Mission Santa Ines.
In addition to the box of presents, through cash and in-kind donations, each family receives a 18-gallon plastic bin filled with food. Bags of rice and flour, boxes of pancake mix and cereal, large jars of peanut butter and jelly fill the bins to overflowing. At the last hour before distribution, two fresh chickens donated each year by El Rancho Marketplace, are added. These food containers weigh in at about 60 pounds and the family gets to keep the bin.
Participating families are not required to belong to Old Mission Santa Ines or to any church, but the Valley's religious communities are annually among CBP's biggest supporters.
During packing day, the Rev. Dr. Randall Day, rector at St. Mark's-in-the-Valley Episcopal Church was on hand. Dozens of St. Mark's members sponsor families each year. The Mission's new pastor, Fr. Matt Elshoff, also dug in to help pack during his first CBP.
Geyser's own work starts in July with grant writing.
"I learned on the job," said the former office manager, who noted that the Santa Ynez Valley Foundation always comes through with a grant.
By Oct. 1, she's taking applications.
"I personally sit down with every family and handle the financial vetting. That's not something I want to delegate," she said. Families that qualify are notified of what the distribution day will be and given their assigned number.
Shopping for the food items means hitting big sales at Costco and other discount stores for the best prices on those food staples, which are then stored in Genevieve and Lew Geyser's garage.
"My husband has been so supportive of my doing this," said Geyser, as she laughs about his giving up his garage every year. That's where the CBP pantry items are stacked until the day they're brought over to the Mission for packing.
"He leads a caravan of trucks getting everything from there to here," she explained.
Another volunteer group that Geyser has involved for six years -- she calls them "the best workers I have" -- is the fifth-grade class from the Santa Ynez Valley Charter School.
On Dec. 15, two dozen fifth-graders jumped off the bus that brought them to the mission. Each child was given an elf hat, shown the exact order the food bins were to be organized and given an assignment.
All of them followed Geyser's instructions to a tee. That meant no running, and no tossing bags or boxes into the bins but carefully placing them to avoid breakage.
"I admit I was reluctant when the idea of the elf caps came up a couple of years ago. I didn't want to commercialize the effort. I later realized it gave the kids something to remember what they did this day," Geyser said. "That's important."

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