Around 500 Burbank families are enjoying a happier holiday season thanks to the giving caring spirit of the Burbank Coordinating Council, its donors, and volunteers. The council is like the “little engine that could.” Nothing stops it — least of all a few days of record breaking rain and chilly temperatures.
Going strong since 1946, the council is the driving force behind the Holiday Basket Program,which coordinates with individuals, organizations, the entertainment studios, local schools, churches, and companies to provides hundreds of boxes, bundles, and bags of groceries and necessities as well as gifts for needy families in the city. In the words of indomitable BCC Chair, Janet Diel, “…. it’s our community and we all need to be a part of helping it.”
I found out about the Holiday Basket Program, when I came across a couple of volunteers collecting for it out in front of the Ralph’s on South San Fernando Boulevard Saturday, December 11. I had stopped by the store to pick up only one thing, but after a pitch from the volunteers, I bought several of the items on the list they gave me to go in some of the holiday baskets. Many shoppers at this Ralph’s and five other stores around Burbank donated food, cleaning products, and paper goods to the program, too. Also, the volunteers received money contributions for the cause.
After an exchange of e-mails with Diel, a 28-year volunteer of the BCC, I decided to follow the Holiday Basket Program through the next phases. On the following cold, rainy Friday evening, I drove across town to George Washington Elementary to observe the assembling of the holiday baskets. In the school auditorium, volunteers sorted, stacked, and organized hundreds of deliveries.
The deliveries are assembled with care — outdated or damaged items are weeded out and tossed. Once the delivery bags and boxes are filled with food staples and household products– items specific to each family such as clothes, toys, movie DVDs, as well as food and gift cards are added.
This is a huge operation. Diel is in the middle of it all, cellphone in one hand and notes in another. No detail is too small nor problem too large for Diel to tackle with the help of her dedicated support team that includes her husband Hank Diel, son Jason, daughter Joey, and Burbank City Councilman Dave Golonski. A long-time volunteer, Golonski said donations were up, despite the down economy or maybe because of it “…people a little more generous..” this year.
Many Burbank city employees are among the ranks of the program’s volunteers. I saw quite a few familiar faces from City Hall and Burbank PD, especially on Saturday, December 18, the big delivery day. Once again the weather was brutal: cold, rainy, and windy, but still they came in cars, vans, and trucks with their kids, with friends and relatives. It was inspiring to watch the caravan of vehicles with their lights on, rolling out of a Washington Elementary back parking lot loaded down with those holiday baskets. This phase began around 8 a.m. and went on most of the day.
In the loading area, I saw volunteers return again and again to pick up more deliveries. Even in coats, jackets, and heavy sweaters — many were shivering in the cold. One little girl must have asked her mother about the reason for doing this. I overheard the mother say simply:”Honey, we’re doing something for somebody else.”
I asked several of the volunteers the same kind of question. I got a variety of answers from it’s a “family tradition,” to “part of the holiday season”, to “I want my kids to learn to give back.” Also, they shared some emotional stories about seeing the joyful, sometimes tearful reactions of the recipients.
On Saturday, a couple of volunteers came back from a delivery run and shared one of those joyful moments. One family’s delivery included a giant, stuffed purple unicorn. When the volunteers walked in with the packages and boxes — a three-year-old girl rushed up to them with a huge smile and reached for the unicorn, “that’s just what I wanted!”
Some of the volunteers, like Rosie Ortiz, were once on the receiving end of this program. That was at least 10 years ago. Now married, at the time Ortiz was a single mother with four daughters, when she “…received a gift basket.” Ortiz remembers, “…my kids were really happy.” For that reason, Ortiz and her husband pitch in as a volunteers for this Burbank program each year, even though they live in Northridge.
Operation Holiday Basket did not shut down after the delivery day. In the e-mail I got on Wednesday, December 22, Diel said,”We have added a few more since that day.” Councilman Golonski’s family is making those deliveries. Earlier, Golonski told me that sometimes those late deliveries are still being made during the first few days of January. “No one gets left out if we can help it,” is how Diel summed up the operation.