It doesn’t make Garth Andrews feel good to hand out donations to the homeless of San Francisco on Christmas morning, a tradition he and his family have held for the last 10 years.
It isn’t a once-a-year philanthropy that leaves him feeling warm and fuzzy.
Heck, sometimes it even stresses him out.
“It’s something that’s become an integral part of my family and the community’s families,” said Andrews, an instructor at Sparta Taekwondo in Walnut Creek, Calif.
About 10 years ago, Andrews and his wife wanted to find a way to show their daughters what it means to give back to their community. They assembled packages that included sleeping bags, coats, socks and hats to hand out to the homeless of San Francisco on Christmas morning.
“We took them down to the Transbay Terminal in San Francisco and kind of almost started a riot because there were only seven of them, and there were hundreds of people who used to live in and around the Transbay Terminal in San Francisco,” he recalled.
Still, the “interesting experiment” quickly picked up steam. Each year, the number of handouts doubled and tripled, as did the volunteers in Andrews’ community. By the fourth year, families at Sparta began to volunteer, businesses donated and the project even took a name: Holiday for the Homeless.
“I think we had five different families involved,” Andrews said of the first year that Holiday for the Homeless began to reach out beyond his household. “We did 41 of the packages and when we got to those numbers, there was a lot more to do. We realized that the large gift bags that we were using didn’t hold up too well— they were constantly ripping— so we started to grow it even more. We decided that we were going to buy backpacks to put (supplies) in because the homeless carry their stuff around on their backs anyway.”
Backpacks weren’t all that changed. Andrews began coordinating corporate sponsors. Starbucks donated coffee, Krispy Kreme took care of donuts and Challenge Dairy donated eggs and cheese for breakfast burritos to hand out to the less fortunate.
Holiday for the Homeless is now down to a science. Andrews and Co. have calculated that a backpack handout costs $55, which includes essential items: a backpack, sleeping bag, winter coat, socks, winter gloves, a winter hat, a shirt, rain poncho, flashlight, toiletries, books, a first aid kit and holiday candies and treats. Donors can contribute at www.holidayforthehomeless.org, which is supported through PayPal.
Andrews said that the movement has reached nearly 200 volunteers, which is roughly how many backpacks will be handed out this Christmas.
“We have to do at least 200 (backpacks),” he said convincingly. “We have to do at least what we did last year.”
Tonight at 6 p.m. PST, volunteers will gather at Sparta Taekwondo in Walnut Creek, Calif., a suburb of San Francisco, to put the packs together. The usual assembly line will form, kids will make holiday cards, pizza will be served and a community will be reminded what Christmas is really about.
“We do the packing party right before Christmas, which is where all of the younger kids who will not go on Christmas morning (get involved) because it’s a little gritty,” he explained. “We suggest that the parents not allow the kids to (deliver) until they are old enough to understand what they are going to be experiencing, usually around 12 or 13.”
The grittiness of the Christmas morning delivery that Andrews speaks of is upsetting for many first-time volunteers. The mental illness, incoherence, desperation and heartache that works its way through the handout lines can be a sobering experience for those never exposed to such sights, according to Andrews, and often times it “can actually reduce them to tears.”
Still, the men and women of Sparta will show up, and those less fortunate will be waiting. Many will receive much-needed items that will get them through another difficult year, yet there is never enough to go around.
“When we pass out these packs on Christmas morning, they’re gone in about 10 minutes. We could pass out 500 of these things and still have people walking away without anything,” Andrews said. “The important thing is, sometimes just a warm cup of coffee, something hot to eat and conversation is all these people want.“
Garth Andrews, his wife and four daughters will be up at 5 a.m. on Wednesday morning. They will pick up packs with the other couple dozen volunteers from their community’s dojang and sacrifice their Christmas to enrich others’.
When he and his wife started this project-turned-movement, it was to teach a lesson to their daughters. That lesson has now moved to hundreds in the greater San Francisco area.
“I actually think that it has to do with the yolk of responsibility that we take on as martial arts instructors,” he said. “We have a responsibility to teach these kids. We’re talking to them all the time about their responsibility, about the Tenets of Taekwondo, about helping out those less fortunate than them—we kind of need to eat our own dog food.
“I’m not doing it because I think I need to do it, but because this is a part of my DNA; it is who I am. I feel this need to reach out and help those who are less fortunate, and I want my children and the other kids to understand what this is and what it feels like.”
Holiday for the Homeless is a year-round endeavor that takes countless hours and an immeasurable amount of manpower to pull off, and it is all over in a matter of minutes on a chilly December morning. It is exhausting, emotionally draining and incredibly sobering.
“It’s an important life lesson for the kids, but it’s also an important life lesson for myself as well. I think this is part of my responsibility, our responsibility, the responsibility of the community and the responsibility to teach our children,” he said. “You realize that these people, for the other 364 days of the year, are basically sleeping on the streets. They’re not going to have any sleeping bags, they’re not going to have a warm coat, and they’re not going to have a new pair of socks, gloves, a hat and all of that stuff.”
For 364 days a year, perhaps Andrews is right. But on Christmas morning, the people of Sparta Taekwondo in Walnut Creek will deliver to the needy of San Francisco more than just donations; they, too, will deliver comfort and joy.