By BROOKE FIELDS
California Grey Bears are preparing to host their 39th annual Holiday Dinner for an estimated 3,000 seniors in Santa Cruz County on Dec. 2. The dinner will be held at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium at 11:30 a.m.
Tim Brattan is the executive director and has been for the last two years.
“I’ve learned about the culture and the spirit of giving,” says Brattan. “People have been really generous with us and it’s amazing to watch and be part of it.”
One part of the event that Brattan wanted to make sure people knew of is the Grey Bears brown bag program will be delivering food to seniors on Dec. 13 and 14 for those who are unable to make it to the dinner. Those who won’t attend will receive a bag of a refrigerated meal that they can put in the oven.
The brown bag program provides drivers that put out about 4,000 bags of food every week. This year, for the holiday dinner, there are many members who can’t leave the house or even carry the bags, so they have food delivered right to their door step.
On average there are about 1,400 seniors throughout the county that the Grey Bears deliver to regularly.
California Grey Bears do four events each year similar to the Holiday Dinner, but Brattan says this one will be by far the biggest.
“We are doing around 3,000 seniors for this event,” says Brattan. “It’s a massive undertaking.”
The Grey Bears have about 100 volunteers for the dinner who will do everything from seating the seniors, to checking the guest list and bringing the food to their tables. Chefs from the Santa Cruz Diner will be cooking up some of the food that day. Other local businesses that will have contributed to the dinner are Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting and pies from Gizdich Ranch will be provided.
There will also be entertainment this year. Bruce Bratton, who has been with Grey Bears every holiday dinner but the first one, has put together a group of dance companies that will be doing a full production during the dinner.
Grey Bears was started in 1973 to target seniors because they were seen as an unmet need in the community and many of them had to watch their spending. In just the first year Grey Bears had accumulated 100 members and by the time of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the organization was up to about 2,000 members.
To make the food available every week, the Grey Bears created a network of drivers. At first, services were limited. For instance, in Watsonville, there was only one route. Now in Watsonville, there are 15 routes that take food to houses.
After years of expanding Grey Bears is up to 4,200 members now, and around 3,950 of those members receive bags every week. Each week, about 500 volunteers do everything. They pick up groceries that is near expiration from 25 local markets. Then they will refrigerate it and drive the bags out to the seniors.
“We are kind of a clearing house for local food, there’s Second Harvest, which what they do is amazing, but what we do is a little more grassroots and we target seniors that seems to be a vulnerable demographic,” Brattan said.
Grey Bears has grown so much since 1973 that other activities help the nonprofit pay for the food it is providing. There is now a thrift store, online bookstore on Amazon.com, two recycling centers and a computer electronic store where they fix and sell electronics. And all the profits from each enterprise go to buy food.