by Tom Sims
Tom Sims covers the Tower District, Downtown Fresno, and Old Town Clovis in his monthly column Strolling the Town.
We feel these are three areas in this Valley that are filled with history, culture and interesting stories. So join us each month as Tom goes Strolling!
When I stroll, I am aware that the things I see along the way are only a small part of the picture of the neighborhoods through which I walk. On the surface, I see the faces of people passing by, the facades of buildings, traffic in the streets and whatever landscape is presented. Everything seems to be working in one way or another.
What I don’t see are all the efforts that make things work. I don’t see the ideas being tossed around in board rooms, the thought processes of artists or the hours of volunteer service that go into every expression of beauty or worthy event that takes place in the city.
I don’t always see the deep and dark challenges that lurk in the shadows. I don’t see everything that makes a community and its culture and I don’t see everything that might undermine it. Nor do I see the efforts of those who are trying to make a difference by bringing the light of hope to the darkness.
One of the biggest annual cultural events in Fresno is also one of the least known by ordinary people: Hope for the Holidays.
Stroll downtown for a while and you cannot miss the historic Water Tower, a landmark in Fresno. Wander inside and discover an art gallery with local works on display. The Art By Hand Gallery is an opportunity for local artists to display and market their creations. It is also connected with an organization with a long presence in Fresno, putting volunteers to work and building towers of culture and hope: HandsOn Central California.
HandsOn has had its hands in any number of local initiatives and events that promote culture, well being and quality of life issues in the Central Valley. It has been a part of the city for over 50 years connecting business, community-based organizations and individuals to create a culture of volunteerism and sharing.
Stroll around the Water Tower, through the Tower District and now, anywhere in Fresno or Clovis and there is another culture. Outside every quaint restaurant and cultural event, after the lights go out, in corners and alleys and under overpasses, people huddle for warmth and shelter from the elements. Others skip from couch to motel to shelter to van and back and forth just trying to survive. Thousands of these are children; homelessness is rampant in Fresno. Many enrolled in Fresno Unified School District have their own cultural event to look forward to each year: Hope for the Holidays.
HandsOn Central California is part of this culture as well, organizing the annual event and making sure that, on the Sunday before Christmas, a bit of joy comes to the poorest of the poor in our community.
Hope for the Holidays is an extravaganza of fine dining, arts and crafts stations, games, storytelling, music, dance, and a visit from Santa with a motorcycle police escort. It serves thousands of homeless children and their families who are enrolled in local schools. Every child gets a toy and every family gets treated as guests of honor.
It takes hundreds of volunteers, scores of businesses and community groups, and an effective coordinator, HandsOn Central California.
For the last several years, it has been my pleasure to show up at the last minute as co-master-of-ceremonies, announce some acts and lead some Christmas carols. This year, I was joined by local radio and television personality, Emily Cabrera, who did an amazing job of managing chaos–including the chaos I brought to the stage–and making it look like order.
A stage eye view of the event reveals hundreds of volunteers who are cheerful, respectful and working in perfect synch with each other. Many, many more hundreds of families and children who are laughing, smiling, eating and enjoying the day are the guests of honor.
On stage, this year, as in previous years, were some of the finest cultural performing artists in the area including dancers and singers who are in great demand.
I ran into Cathy Caples, Executive Director of HandsOn as I was about to go on stage. The conversation went like this:
“Cathy, I thought you had retired,” I said.
“Tomorrow,” she said. “I wasn’t going to miss this.”
For six and a half years she has ably led this organization to grow and to become more and more integrated into the culture we enjoy. She has been a major force in the Valley. It was clearly a labor of love and December 22, at the Convention Center.
That is how everyone seemed to feel, from my annual hostess and contact person, Marcela Neri, herself a volunteer, to Santa, to the young people who wrapped gifts and to the businesses who served. Everyone was caught up in the joy…the joy of hope.
This was a worthy send off for Caples.
This is not all HandsOn Central California does. It is the tip of the iceberg. According to their website, “HandsOn Central California inspires, equips and mobilizes people to take action that changes their communities and the world.”
Started over fifty years ago as the Volunteer Bureau, the mission statement of HandsOn Central California is:
“HandsOn Central California serves as a catalyst for mobilizing volunteers to meet community needs. We work with agencies, government, businesses, schools, law enforcement, and community leaders to identify critical community issues and design the volunteer response. We work with disaster response, school safety, illiteracy, homelessness, and hunger. Volunteers improve our community! HandsOn Central California is a click away to a wide range of volunteer opportunities at nonprofit organizations, government agencies and episodic events. We connect people who want to help-individuals, families, students, businesses and their employees, civic community and faith based organizations – with places or issues that their time, talent and interests can be effectively utilized.”
Their motto is: “Be the change…Volunteer!”
HandsOn is at the helm of a number of projects, but integrated into hundreds. Through coordination, collaboration, and networking, its influence is felt in almost every area of community life, cultural and philanthropic.
Individuals can become members of HandsOn and volunteer throughout the year. Other community benefit organizations (non-profits) can join and list their needs. Businesses can align as well. The organization supervises and places many local Americorp volunteers. Even people who need to do court-ordered community service can find an outlet and clearing house for their responsibilities. There is training, volunteer matching and a number of special projects and events.
One event of particular prominence in the near future is the annual Hands Across the Valley Awards to honor and volunteers in the community. Nominations can be submitted at www.handsoncentralcal.org/Nominations.
Like any community benefit organization, HandsOn Central California depends upon contributions from the community to be able to continue its programs.
I assume that, as I continue my stroll, I will be passing by many places where HandsOn has been and will be. Like many other forces that drive our culture, it is mostly invisible and behind the scenes, but if it ever went away it would be sorely missed.
You can contact HandsOn Central California at (559) 237-3101, via email at info@handsoncentralcal[dot]org. You can learn more on their website.
Report from 2011 Hope for the Holidays –
Event gives homeless children some holiday spirit
Monday, December 19, 2011
Video report of History of HandsOn 50 years of Volunteers: