Families, friends and strangers have given Christmas to homeless Sacramentans in Cesar Chavez Park for 18 years.
Hundreds of people milled about Cesar Chavez Park in the early hours of Christmas morning last year, bundled up against the brisk 36-degree air.
A couple dozen volunteers arrived at 7 a.m. and set out more than 100 gift bags filled with new socks, toothpaste and other essentials. Volunteers laid out clothes, pet food and other donations on tables and tarps in what they called a free shopping area near the patio of La Cosecha, the Mexican restaurant in the park. Another group brought hot coffee, hot chocolate and soup. Others, doughnuts. Fifty of those bags had a $5 bill attached.
A line began to form. Volunteers like Lisa Ann Dubay, 54, an unhoused veteran college student, greeted each person with a gift bag and conversation.
“It was cold. We had hot cocoa and doughnuts with a couple ladies that live on the street, hearing their stories. We had fellowship,” Dubay recalls. “There was just hundreds of people down there lining the park.”
A handful of longtime Sacramentans have led the effort of bringing gift bags, soup and doughnuts to the park for the past 18 Christmases. Rosemont resident Judy Serafini’s garage fills up with socks and other items for the gift bags, which friends and family donate throughout the year. For the past 10 of those years, she hasn’t needed to purchase any of the items herself.
For about the same amount of time, Georgella Burnette-Ellis and her family have served hot soup and coffee, while still other friends bring knitted hats, scarves and gloves.
All give for different reasons, with little fanfare or pronouncement. Yet word has spread, and the event has grown from 20 gift shoeboxes at its start in 1999 to at least 100 gift bags expected for this year. Cesar Chavez Park is a destination point on Christmas Day for those without homes and Sacramentans who want to help.
Serafini and Burnette-Ellis say the event is about shared humanity and conversation, a brief respite from the cold and from life on the street.
The need is great. They never have more bags than people, Serafini says. Over the years, perhaps thousands of people have enjoyed a moment of Christmas in Cesar Chavez Park. “It isn’t just that day,” Serafini says. “It’s seeing the transformation in our volunteers involved who feel good. It’s like I can’t do much but dang it, I can make somebody’s Christmas.
“People show up to help I’ve never met,” she continues. “I’ll do it every Christmas until I die.”
Giving More With Less
Jessica Serafini, 27, was the kind of kid who brought a kitten home. Exactly, in fact.
“We kept it,” Judy Serafini laughs. On a visit to Chavez Park, sitting at a yellow table in the shade of an oak tree, Jessica and her mom recall how the Christmas program began.
“I always wanted to help others,” says Jessica, “and to give back.”
There wasn’t a lot to go around in Jessica’s own life. Judy was a single mother at 19, forced to live in her car after graduating from high school; she later found work as a receptionist and eventually became a human resources professional.
Judy Serafini never forgot what it was like to have less, though.
In 1999, when Jessica was 8 years old, she read about a woman who gave out bags of necessities at Christmas. That year, Serafini recalls, the family didn’t have holiday plans, and the story Jessica had read stuck in their minds. At the time, Serafini had a friend who worked in a state building overlooking the plaza. She said if they wanted to help the homeless, there was plenty of need there.
The family went for it, filling 20 shoeboxes with bottled water, socks, gloves, combs and home-baked cookies. Each one carried a dollar bill, too: Judy’s personal passion.
“It bothers me when people say don’t give homeless people money; they’re just going to buy alcohol. I find that to be the most judgy thing,” Serafini says. “I know what it’s like to be poor. Nothing feels better than when you can buy your own soda with your own money. It’s like you’re part of the human race.”
Now, Serafini and her family are known as “the $5 people,” she says. At first they used gift-wrapped shoeboxes, but Serafini found them limiting and wasteful, so they switched to reusable bags two years ago.
Serafini learned from patrons of Loaves & Fishes, where she volunteered, not to give alcohol or men’s razors. (Recipients might be targeted for them.) Soft foods were recommended, such as pudding and fig bars that don’t require teeth.
Few if any news reports have been devoted to the quiet ceremony, and there’s been little to no pushback from the city. One year, an official warned they would stop volunteers from giving away prepared food.
No one has stopped them.
There’s also been little to no conflict. Serafini recalls a woman yelling, seemingly with a mental illness. Someone knew her and began talking to her.
Friends joined in on the second year. When Serafini married her second husband, Nick, he found a passion in it and they grew the program to 50 and later 100 bags. Friends and family kept donating. One of many friends, Karen Perry, has stuck with them since the beginning, while Toni Morgan, a navigator for the homeless with Sacramento Self-Help Housing, is a lead partner in preparing bags. The Serafinis are determined to pay for the $5 bills.
They hope to expand to 200 bags. They’re adding books this year, and they may include an on-site wrapping station, so recipients could turn a few of the donated items into gifts.
Shared Food—and Perspective
Georgella Burnette-Ellis was living paycheck-to-paycheck as a nurse, but she and her family always had enough, she says. Her Christmas in the park started for other personal reasons.
A single mother after her husband passed, Burnette-Ellis became frustrated when her teenagers acted ungrateful on a Christmas morning 18 years ago. “I said, ‘Nuh-uh, next year is going to be different,’” she says, laughing.
Instead, they began spending Christmas in Cesar Chavez Park, serving chili and soup, coffee and pastries. One of Burnette-Ellis’ friends, in her 80s, knits hats, scarves and gloves.
“It paid off. They’re so appreciative—their whole mindset is different,” Burnette-Ellis says of her kids. “It could be any of us. If my child was (homeless), I would want someone to help them.”
A constellation of friends have bought the coffee and volunteered over the years. Her family and another, the Coulsons, now serve most of the food, together with their children and grandchildren. The event has grown so much she has a hard time finding a spot, she says.
Looking Beyond Christmas
Last year was Lisa Ann Dubay’s first on the giving side.
Dubay had received holiday gift packages as a homeless vet attending Sacramento State. Toni Morgan, the president of Dubay’s co-ed veterans fraternity, helped prepare the bags. Now working for Sacramento Self-Help Housing, Morgan runs the free shopping area at the Christmas event and provides supplies. Serafini hopes that can include cards listing services that provide assistance beyond Christmas. “It has to be more than just one day. What do you do tomorrow?” Serafini says.
That was on Dubay’s mind, too, as she headed to the cold park last year.
Asked what it was like being on the other side of the gift-giving equation, Dubay pauses in reflection. “I was sad because I know how they feel,” she says, her voice halting. She has spent years living in and out of her car, couch surfing and, most recently, leaving Section 8 housing due to toxic mold. Now, she lives in an RV in Newcastle while finishing up her degree in recreation therapy, which she hopes to use to help homeless vets or vets with disabilities.
“The homeless people were extremely appreciative. To see them smile and to give them a little bit on Christmas was . . . I was crying,” Dubay says, pausing again for several moments. “I didn’t feel proud. I was humbled again.”
Dubay was saddened when a few stragglers came by and there wasn’t much left to give them. The need can be overwhelming, she says. “We need to think bigger. It starts with our attitude when we see a homeless person. That’s how it changes. It starts with our mentality. I can tell you, we all have it. There’s institutions to blame, politics, society—not the individual. They need help beyond Christmas. It’s policy and being more neighborly, volunteering and donating time and money.”
That’s something she and Serafini agree on. “There’s something inside us that tells us it’s wrong to ignore people,” Serafini says. “It makes you feel better to help. This creates space for that.”
How To Help—Longtime volunteers encourage anyone wanting to get involved to come down to Cesar Chavez Park at 7 a.m. on Christmas Day. Bring a reusable gift bag (or wrapped box) with new socks, toiletries and other essentials.