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Borrego's Human Safety Net: The Borrego Ministers Association

Still Giving, Still in the Midst of the Battle


Last updated 5/13/2021 at 10:49am

One thing that makes Borrego Springs a special place to live is the way the community cares for the most vulnerable and needy. Due to the isolation and distance from urban centers and urban social services, when the pandemic hit the community hard, volunteers, businesses and church leaders took responsibility for raising funds and assisting people in need.

Fortunately, for those who were hardest hit by the pandemic’s economic consequences, there’s a net of caring that is often invisible, usually personal, spiritual and practical, connecting the community. One of the strong threads of the safety net is the Borrego Ministers Association (BMA). During the pandemic, as the only direct relief organization in Borrego, BMA volunteers, and religious leaders rose to the occasion, setting an example of how Borrego will care for its own through any future disaster by handling new challenges.

For example, since January 2020, the BMA has given away $47,500 in food certificates. “Which,” according to Diane Johnson, vice president, “at an average household size of 4, that means we’re served households in Borrego or Ocotillo Wells 1200 times — many are repeats. The Pantry and Center Market have been great partners. Mitzi Poulin of the Center Market, has donated almost $10,000 in gift certificates.”

”First the demand was overwhelmingly for food, now help for rent payments is the primary need, then food, and utilities,” stated Rev. Laura Brecht, Rector of Saint Barnabas Episcopal Church, and president of the Ministers Association.

“The Borrego food bank, offered at Saint Barnabas the third Monday of every month, receives deliveries from the Jacobs and Cushman San Diego Food Bank, and Saint Richards, which has deliveries from Feeding America, were overwhelmed with requests. For many months, cars lined the streets for blocks, and occasionally some families had to leave without food.”

Mike Himmerich, BMA treasurer, has written over 400 checks since January 2020. In the years prior, he used to do 20 a year. These go to landlords, utilities such as SDG&E and the Borrego Water District, banks, and some to local gas stations to set up accounts for people that have extraordinary numbers of medical appointments out of town.

Johnson describes the BMA program: “The Association does not provide cash; we purchase a food certificate, once a month per household. $50 for the first person, an additional $25 for others, up to a $150 maximum. We include a $50 gift certificate from the Frugal Coyote/Borrego Health when the client would like one.

“We also help with rent assistance, which is averaging $300 a month, utilities (electric or water) are up to $200 per month. We also give some help with mortgages, though there aren’t many of them.

“Now, there are several food banks held in town each month and while they provide nutrition, they do not offer basics such as toilet paper, diapers, detergent, personal hygiene products, and other basic foods, the family may prefer or need. Our certificates allow them to purchase these types of essentials.”

The group also lobbied San Diego Gas and Electric to arrange for back payment relief with a plan for families that got behind on their utility payments, and helps persons of low income or are on public assistance to qualify for the California Alternative Rates for Energy (CARE) program and FERA the Family Electric Rate and Assistance (FERA) program.

( Volunteers also assist people apply for rental assistance through the County Emergency-Rental- Assistance Program (ERAP).

According to Rev. Brecht, the non-profit was created by the community’s religious leaders reacting to people, who were going from church to church, seeking help. “We decided to start a non-profit, tax deductible, umbrella organization that collectively identified, and provided resources for people having difficulty putting food on the table for their families, paying bills, and other emergency needs.

“Our program is to give hope to people on the edge of despair. Our fliers and website give the contact numbers for our members so people can reach them directly and personally. We meet every Tuesday on Zoom to go over requests, specifically where large donations are required. Every request is taken and followed up via a form, and a direct contact by a volunteer.”

Brecht adds that volunteers stay in touch with families that they serve and regularly monitor their needs.

“The beauty of what we do is, we are ministering to the spirit, as well as the physical needs. I especially love seeing lay people ministering to those in need. Everyone is a minister. Every contribution is valued. No gift is too small. There’s so many that deserve credit for this outpouring of love for others, I wouldn’t know where to begin. We are an every-person deserves credit operation.

“One of the most moving things to me, is the fact that people turned over their stimulus checks to us. They probably needed the money also, but chose to give it to us to help others,” Brecht confided.

Prior to COVID-19, donations collected from Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter Services adequately met the budgetary needs of the association. This, along with additional private donations provided for the $5,000 charity coffer. When the pandemic hit, the demands grew. Today the group relies on individual gifts, and contributions from local businesses to fund its significant pandemic-related budget.

“The money,” according to Vice President Johnson “has seemed to meet the need, until recently. Borregans have been very generous during this crisis. However, as time wears on, and the economic fallout continues for so many of our neighbors, we are seeing a drop in the contributions, and fear many of our seasonal contributors are leaving town; and may not realize the need is as urgent as before.

“Our services are still in demand, and the relief that many are feeling doesn’t extend to those, who still have not regained employment, or are deep in debt.“

In addition to a $10,000 grant from the Borrego Valley Endowment Fund, the BMA has received large donations of $5,000 from local businesses, such as Rams Hill and La Casa del Zorro.

For many who volunteer, like Shirley Vialpando, the benefits go both ways.

Shirley Vialpando has been an active volunteer for St. Barnabas Episcopal for the past 17 years and was asked to take over Spanish translation duties in the campaign to help neighbors seriously impacted by the COVID virus.

“My acceptance of that request has turned out to be a wonderful blessing in my life for the past year. I have reached the age of 84 this year and find that it gets more and more difficult to leave my house other than to be taken to the medical clinic.

“Working on behalf of the BMA, and attending the weekly meetings on Zoom has been for me a treasured way of socializing with a dedicated group of people who not only ‘“talk the talk,’” she explained, adding, “In addition, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing just how caring and generous are the people of Borrego. Our work would be impossible without them and we thank God for them at every meeting.”

Diane Johnson, the consummate Borrego volunteer, who wears many organizational hats, joined the Rotary Club in 2003, but jumped into volunteering full time in 2010.

Why volunteer?

“I volunteer because I guess I’m wired to like to help people. I was a reference librarian for years, and some people consider that a form of social work. I’ve heard it said – and there’s even a good deal of research on this – that when you help someone else, it makes you feel good too. Endorphins, the ‘“helper’s high.”’

“On a more personal note, Borrego is small enough that it seems possible to get a pretty decent idea of the whole community’s needs. Then, since we have so many different groups doing different kinds of good work, you have to figure out which organizations you want to get involved in. And then try to keep that at a manageable number. But you meet so many kind, smart, quirky people along the way that the work is often fun (except when a bunch of deadlines hit all at once).”

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