Volunteer organization Hands in the Community celebrates 10 years of generosity
By Stephanie Barraza
Special to the Sun-Gazette
Special to the Sun-Gazette
VISALIA – Hands in the Community started with a phone call.
It was two or three weeks before Christmas when founder and executive director, Lester Moon, received a call from someone who was in a particular dilemma.
“He said, ‘My wife and I have been buying gifts that we wanted to donate to the church but they already had their Christmas program, and they referred us to you’,” said Moon.
At that moment, Moon didn’t quite know who it was that called him that Friday afternoon, but once he heard their predicament, he knew that the services of his organization had just started.
“I had a truck bed full of about 60 brand new toys that this couple wanted to donate, but they didn’t know where,” he said.
After collecting the gifts, he called around to local churches to see if they were willing to take the gifts on such a short notice during the busy holiday season. Eventually, a small church in north Visalia answered his call.
“I said, ‘I was calling because I was wondering if your church would be interested in some Christmas gifts,’ and after a moment of silence, the pastor’s wife started to cry. She told me that after I called the pastor, they had just had a meeting talking about cancelling their Christmas program because they had no donations or money that year.”
After meeting with the pastor and his wife, they broke bread together, wrapped the gifts, and the next day they began going door-to-door throughout the neediest part of town to hand out the toys.
“When you knocked on the door, you can see these excited kids running over because they see the gifts, but if you look down the hallway, you also see that they’re sleeping on the floor, and you go to the next apartment and you see their living room furniture are lawn chairs. You can see these people living very, very frugally.”
“That was the first attempt of Hands in the Community (HNC) to reach out to the community,” said Moon.
Ten years later, Moon saw the expansion of his organization grow from one volunteer to a network of about 1,100 volunteers, which have also included partnerships with 400 businesses and organizations, and 58 churches. At the core of their mission, the main objective is to assist people to become self-sufficient and to strengthen the ability for individuals and families to care for themselves.
“We’re not a food pantry, we’re not a clothing closet, we’re not a soup kitchen and we’ll never be those things. One of the things we do here is a screening process to verify their need,” he said. “But what are we really about? We are people helping people.”
Through the program last year, over $1.2 million worth of goods and services were donated back into the community, assisting more than 500 families and individuals throughout Tulare County. They have also expanded their service network to Kings and lower Fresno county areas.
It was also 10 years ago that Moon was operating the program from his home. Through contacts with local churches, someone reached out to him about an office space they were willing to donate for his cause, which included paid utilities and Internet service for the next four to five years.
“At the time, we only had about $400 worth of donations, which wouldn’t have been enough to pay the utilities of this office they were offering,” he said. “I almost fell on the floor. I was expecting to take another year to raise enough money to find another office. In one week I went from nothing to opening the doors on January 1, 2009.”
If you walk into the HNC office now, you can see about a dozen volunteers getting ready for the organization’s 10th Annual Dinner and Silent Auction, happening Saturday, Oct. 20 at the Visalia Convention Center. Some are answering phone calls and updating social media channels while others are making gift baskets and collecting wine donations.
Volunteers have been at the crux of how the program runs since it was first conceptualized.
In early 2008, Moon attended a community-wide meeting discussing ways on how to combat the increase of gangs, poverty and unemployment in Visalia. It was there that Moon suggested in creating an organization that connected people in need with volunteers and local agencies.
“I said, ‘What if I can organize volunteer and network resources in the community? Would that help?”
Volunteers at HNC are of all age groups and backgrounds, and include many college interns and individuals looking to gain job experience in an office setting.
“I remember the first year we had six volunteers in the office the whole week. Two weeks ago, we had 20 people in the whole building in one three-hour shift. So it has grown, but even then we can’t keep up with it.”
However, despite the local support the program has seen, it has also experienced its share of growing pains.
“The good news is that we’re growing and the bad news is that we’re growing. It’s the nature of nonprofits,” he said. “What we try to do is focus on whatever community the need is and go from there. In some ways that has expanded the organization much faster than expected, in other ways it has expanded it too fast because we can’t keep up with the need.”
Currently, more than 50 percent of the individuals the program is serving are seniors, many of whom need wheelchair ramps built and installed at their homes.
According to Moon, one ramp could cost upwards of $4,500 in labor and materiel costs. But the most common need that Moon sees being a challenge to provide are finding handymen to service basic home repairs, such as fixing a fence or replacing a light bulb.
“The things that we are helping people with are the basic fundamentals of life,” he said.
As Moon looks over the last decade of the program, he still remembers during his childhood when members of local churches would bring gifts to his home in upstate New York, where the basic fundamentals were scarce.
“I grew up in a two-bedroom home with no electricity or running water,” he said. “Aside from my grandparents, those were the probably the only Christmas gifts my sister and I ever got. That left an impression on me because I didn’t know these people. So all along I was realizing that I needed to do something to give back to the community.”
Moon hopes to see the next 10 years of HNC to be more self-sustainable, with an increase in the amount paid administrative positions, and continue to increase the number of businesses and churches involved.
‘The last 10 years have been exciting and every year we keep increasing the number of people we serve, the number of volunteers that are helping and the number of businesses and churches that are involved,” he said. “With the support of the community we hope to do more projects and help more people.”