Politicians are fond of saying that you can't solve a problem by throwing money at it, but in the real world there's a lot of human suffering that could be easily fixed by the timely infusion of a little cash.
Such as a single mom whose budget is already stretched to the limit putting food on the table for her kids, leaving nothing left for their Christmas presents.
Or a Berkeley High senior who would have been the first in her family to go to college, except for one hitch: She couldn't afford the college application fees.
They were just two of the almost 1,000 people who got a very welcome surprise last December when an envelope containing a check mysteriously appeared in their mailbox. The checks weren't large, ranging from $30 to $100. But for the recipients, they made all the difference. And there were no strings attached. No guidelines, no conditions, no sermons to hear first. What's more, this has been going on for 100 years.
It all started in 1912 when Jo Mills, a prominent figure in early Berkeley, founded the Berkeley Christmas Committee. The committee produced a large-scale pageant every December to raise money to provide gifts of food, clothing, blankets and toys for needy families. The pageant eventually grew into a colorful spectacle with 800 children and 200 adults.
The pageant was canceled during World War II, but the work of the Christmas Committee never stopped. It became a nonprofit organization, changed its name to the Berkeley Christmas Fund and switched from giving gifts in kind to mailing checks directly to the recipients.
In 1992 the name was changed again to the Berkeley Holiday Fund, but nothing else has changed. Virtually 100 percent of the money goes directly to the recipients. There's no overhead -- no office, no paid staffers, just a bunch of enthusiastic volunteers. And most of the logistical support is donated. The postage is paid by the Berkeley mayor's office, and the Mechanics Bank cashes the checks free of charge.
The fund doesn't choose the recipients. It gets the names from local social service agencies, including Children's Hospital, the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, Bananas, Berkeley Head Start and the Salvation Army.
"We take the social workers' word for it," says Andrew Williams, who co-chairs the fund with his wife, Linda (who, by the way, writes detective novels under the pen name Linda Grant). "That's their job. Our job is to write checks."
The social workers appreciate the lack of red tape, a rare luxury in the bureaucratic world they work in. One wrote, "I especially appreciate that you are not condescending in your generosity."
Next weekend, about 10 volunteers will sit around the kitchen table in the Williams' home and stuff envelopes with this year's checks. It's that down-home.
If you'd like to support this effort, please mail a tax-deductible check to: The Berkeley Holiday Fund, P.O. Box 9779, Berkeley, CA 94707 or visit www.berkeleyholidayfund.org.
A few donations have been as large as $1,000, but most are in the $5 to $10 range.
"I think it's the $5 and $10 donations we treasure the most," Linda says. "We know many of these people are on fixed incomes, so even $5 is a tremendous sacrifice."
Reach Martin Snapp at email@example.com.