North County’s ‘bridge’ project ends as money starts flowing
The River of Giving has come to an end.
And that’s a good thing because the group was organized on the spur of the moment in response to the pandemic shutdown by Maili Halme and her mother, Susan Halme, to provide food and household items for families in the Santa Ynez Valley, Lompoc and Los Alamos who needed help for the first time in their lives.
“Now, most of them have gone back to work or received their stimulus or unemployment checks. We have accomplished our goal of being the bridge to carry them over,” said Ms. Halme, explaining that the group was called the River of Giving “because the money from private donations was used to buy the food and other items that flowed directly to those in need.
“When we created the River of Giving, our purpose was to help those in the restaurant and hospitality industry survive the shutdown. Many did not qualify for any type of public assistance while others took five to eight weeks to finally receive unemployment checks.”
The longtime chef, who lives in Solvang, and her mother, owner of the Solvang Bakery, were particularly aware of the impact on colleagues who worked in restaurants and hotels.
“This all started because of a single mother who was a server at a local restaurant. She had two jobs and had always managed to pay her rent on time and care for her 5-year-old son. When all of this happened, she lost both jobs. I was deeply concerned about her, and when I got to her home, she was in a state of panic and depression. She didn’t even have $5,” recalled Ms. Halme.
“I brought over a bunch of groceries and gave her some money. As I tried to connect her with local organizations, I was saddened to discover a difficult web of insufficient resources and significant gaps in our systems to provide people with healthy, fresh and balanced food. I realized other restaurant and hospitality workers were facing the same challenges and falling through the cracks and not receiving any help from any state or government agencies.
“Even those who qualified for unemployment found the system bogged down, and for those living from paycheck to paycheck, waiting five to six weeks for an unemployment check was too long.”
She was undaunted by buying food in huge quantities and was able to purchase items at wholesale costs. One shipment included 500 bags of potatoes, 2,000 bags of carrots, 600 heads of lettuce and 600 bags of celery.
“I’ve been cooking since I was 14. I’ve been feeding people my whole life. I’m used to ordering food in volume,” she said. “I was able to feed a household of six for $12.70 a week in the River of Giving project.”
Among those who pitched in to help get the program off the ground were Carlene Jones, Anne Sullivan Lawrence, Rick and Jane Schucker Soto, Ann Padden-Rubin and Pam Gnekow.
“As the word got out, we began to get donations ranging from $50 to $3,000. Thankfully, we had enough each week to meet the growing need,” said Ms. Halme, a graduate of Santa Ynez Valley High School. Her family has lived in Solvang since 1976.
The program soon expanded to other households that needed help, not only in Santa Ynez Valley but Lompoc and Los Alamos, too.
“We started with 16 families, and at one time, were serving about 700 families,” she said.
Each weekly delivery included two kinds of protein such as tri-tip and chicken or pork shoulder and ground beef along with milk, eggs, cheese, butter, potatoes, beans, bread, fresh vegetables like carrots, cabbage and tomatoes and fresh fruit like apples, oranges and strawberries.
“Guy De Mangeon, owner of The Berryman in Santa Barbara, was a generous donor,” said Ms. Halme.
Each week there would be special bonus items like toilet paper, hand soap, paper towels and laundry detergent.
“One donor provided diapers, and another donated dog and cat food,” she said.
Although the River of Giving ceased operations on June 12, Ms. Halme will continue to work with Ms. Gnekow, director at the Buellton Senior Center, which is sponsored by the Santa Ynez Valley Senior Citizen Foundation, to ensure that those in desperate need are still served.
The center has a free farmers market from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.
“I met the most wonderful people through this process. From the donors to volunteers, there was a generosity of spirit and work ethic like nothing I have ever seen. All of these people worked so hard volunteering for good. And the gratitude from the families we delivered to that I will never forget,” said Ms.Halme.
“At the beginning of all this, I wrote a story about my grandfather who was a minister. He grew up poor in Finland. One night, they didn’t have any food. Nothing at all. His family was praying for something to sustain them. Their neighbor had been wondering about ‘those Halme boys’ and if they were OK. In the middle of their prayers, the neighbor walked in with dinner for them.
“ My grandfather never forgot that. My grandparents eventually came to America and went on to feed and help thousands of people, and my grandmother was always cooking and always having enough for anyone who needed it.”