Yes, There Really Is a Santa Claus in Town

December 24, 2009
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La Verne Mayor Don Kendrick with DPI CEO Vicki Brown at Christmas in the Park.

La Verne Mayor Don Kendrick with DPI CEO Vicki Brown at Christmas in the Park.

The longest line in La Verne isn’t the one leading into a Bonita football or basketball game, to Target on Black Friday or Del Taco on Taco Tuesday. It’s the line of people, devastated by the long recession waiting for food to be distributed on the first and third Wednesdays of every month by Sowing Seeds for Life, a nonprofit organization founded by Vicki Brown, the CEO of DPI Labs, a La Verne aerospace company.

When the organization sprouted in 2007, Sowing Seeds fed about 1,000 families a month. Last year that number increased to about 2,000 families. This year the total has swelled to 5,000 families a month or about 60,000 people a year, about twice the size of La Verne’s population. See La Verne Online’s earlier story (From Go Getter to Go Giver) by clicking on

On the first Saturday in December, Sowing Seeds distributed staples and toys to about 1,700 people in Ganesha Park, sort of an early Christmas present to the community. It would have held the event in La Verne, but there was no park in La Verne large enough to serve those in need. Sowing for Seeds’ normal food pantry is held in the parking lot of DPI Labs at 1350 Arrow Hwy.

“We have people line up at 7 in the morning, but distribution doesn’t take place until 2:30 in the afternoon,” said Jim Anderson, Volunteer Coordinator for Sowing Seeds. “Very rarely do we run out of food. We have a few times because we didn’t anticipate the crowds as big as we had, but we usually have something for everyone.”

The hungry can still obtain emergency food if they’re unable to attend the regular first and third Wednesday distribution days. “We just ask that they call us in advance,” added Anderson. Sowing seeds also passes out personal products from baby diapers to adult diapers, from baby strollers and car seats to walking aids, whatever it can get its hands on.

To participate in the food pantry program, people need only sign a declaration stating they meet the organization’s low-income criteria. Distribution works on the honor system. In other words, if you weren’t eligible for the food but were determined to cart home some turkey drumsticks or sausage patties, you could probably get away with the low crime and misdemeanor.

Sowing for Seeds has bigger issues to deal with, like paying for all the food it distributes. While much of the food is donated by the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, the nonprofit still has to rent trucks to pick up the food. The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank also charges Sowing Seeds about 20 cents a pound on average, costs that helps defray the L.A. Food Bank’s rent.

In December, Sowing Seeds has been collecting about 20,000 pounds of food a week. So even though the food is essentially free, it still costs about $4,000 a month to pick it up and distribute. When the organization has extra money, which isn’t often because donations have been lean this year, the funds might go to purchase an additional freezer. With more freezer storage, Sowing Seeds can store and eventually distribute more frozen products such as turkeys, hams and chickens.

Recently, Nestlé’s called, informing Sowing Seeds it could come pick up 22 palettes of bottled water. Sowing for Seeds rented two pick-up trucks from Penske leasing at the nonprofit rate. “To get 22 palettes of water for $150, we couldn’t say no,” said Brown. If the money’s not there, Brown often reaches into her own pocket to make up the shortage.

Fortunately, she’s not the only one who sees the need. Von’s regularly contributes fresh bread and produce, and other organizations are donating their dollars and time, including Wells Fargo, Bonita’s Interact Club, Ramona Middle School and the California Conservation Corps, to name but a few.

Sowing Seeds receives about 12 times the normal allotment of food from the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank because it has gotten really good at distributing food. DPI Labs is a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) -approved facility that is used to passing tough audits. When it collects the food, it has a great track record of getting it to people most in need. Dollar-for-dollar goes to feeding the hungry.

Volunteers were out in force to spread Christmas cheer and fill up bags and baskets with food and toys.

Volunteers were out in force to spread Christmas cheer and fill up bags and baskets with food and toys.

Exactly 100% of the food and donations we collect goes to people who need help,” said Anderson, who doubled as Santa Claus (don’t tell the kids) at December’s Christmas in the Park event.

Sowing Seeds has also trained satellite food pantries and shelters in the area on how to improve their own programs. By teaching other organizations, Sowing for Seeds can help build a stronger safety net to catch those who have stumbled and fallen in the current economy.

Like any relatively new organization, Sowing Seeds is experiencing its own growing pains. Giving food to the community is not as easy at seems. Parking issues have cropped up, and other logistical problems have arisen because of the sheer volume Sowing Seeds feeds each month. It’s not unheard of for a freezer or a fork lift to break down. Nor does its need for volunteers and donations go away after the holidays. When the first food bank day for 2010 arrives on Wednesday, Jan. 6, another 30 to 50 volunteers will be needed for packing, sorting, setting up, breaking down, and all the other labor-intensive activities of running a major food distribution center.

Then there’s still the issue of Brown having to run an important aerospace company, which among other things, furnishes cockpit instruments for Air Force One, the plane on which the President of the United States travels.

For now keeping precision electrical components and cans of kidney beans separate hasn’t been a problem, but Brown dreams of taking her humanitarian task to the next level. She would love for an architect and an engineer to help her develop pro bono an expanded warehouse so Sowing Seeds could conduct its food distribution inside instead of under makeshift tents in DPI’s parking lot. As a result, more room would open for parking and food wouldn’t have to be shuttled from the DPI warehouse out to the parking lot. She has the land; she just needs a better building. In this expanded warehouse, Sowing Seeds could perhaps run a community store that low-income people could access for emergency food more than just twice a month.

As exciting as that expansion dream is, Brown is even more enthusiastic about a new government program called Transitional Subsidized Employment (TSE), which is designed to take people from the bread lines to the employment lines, earning $10 an hour for 40 hours a week over an entire year. Brown has been approved for 40 jobs and has already put eight people to work in the welfare-to-work program. These trainees work alongside DPI Labs employees, learning document scanning, accounting, warehousing, inventory control, machine shop and other valuable workplace skills. The government picks up the tab for the program, and DPI gets a much-needed personnel boost during an admittedly tough time for her company and her industry.

“In a year from now they are going to have a great resume,” Brown said inside her board room.

The positions aren’t just make-work jobs. Applicants have to go through a comprehensive interview process, including drug testing, just as her existing employees have. As an FAA-approved facility subject to stringent ISO (International Organization of Standardization), DPI Labs has to meet exacting standards and regular audits.

“It was a big step for the DPI board to agree to this,” Brown conceded. “Sowing Seeds is helping people with their basic needs and how to get ahead, and DPI has the opportunity to hire them, and they are being trained and have a strong incentive to get out there in the workforce.

“It’s amazing, and we if we get more work, we will certainly want to keep them here.”

It’s amazing to Brown, that this group that has needed a hand-out and a hand-up could actually help her company grow, especially in the area of document scanning and imaging, which has become another niche for the aerospace maker. Typically, aerospace firms have to retain documents for at least 20 years, including all original drawings, specs, work orders and purchase orders, ensuring “the traceability of all the components that go into building an airplane.” Currently, most of that work is sent out of state, which is business that Brown believes DPI could bring in house to help the company grow.

Providing some of the people who now stand in line two Wednesdays out of every month with food and employment keeps Brown engaged and energized. “Employing people, like giving food, is such a simple concept,” Brown said.

“Now we can be part of the solution as opposed to just handing out something for free,” Brown said two days before Christmas. “We are going to get people trained up, and if we can generate revenue for DPI, and if aerospace picks up, that’s all the more exciting. It’s a great opportunity.”

Christmas is about spreading hope and opportunity, and if that sentiment should last throughout the year, Brown couldn’t be happier or feel more blessed.

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