With rent and car insurance alone eating up a total of 75 percent of her monthly social security disability benefits, Maria Sims, 60, can barely afford to get by.
Thanks to a partnership between the Tustin PD and the Tustin Family & Youth Center, Sims was able to enjoy a nice Thanksgiving meal.
On Wednesday, Nov. 27, Sims was among 125 recipients of a free meal for four to six people — ham, mashed potatoes with gravy, stuffing, and cranberry sauce.
The dinners were made possible by generous donations from the Tustin Police Foundation (TPF), TPD employees, and HoneyBaked Hams, which sold the meals to the TPF at a steep discount.
“I became disabled three years ago,” said Sims, a former housekeeper who grew up in Tustin. “I was doing fine. I got adult scoliosis out of nowhere. I was like running around like a teenager and then, bam!”
The cost of living, Sims said, is “ridiculous,” adding, “This is great, because (SSI) doesn’t give me food stamps.”
She and other families who lined up inside the Tustin Family & Youth Center on a rainy Wednesday morning to receive their meals from TPD personnel were extremely grateful for the program, now in its 10th year.
“I really need it,” a teary-eyed Rosa Ramirez, 72, said of the meal. She and her husband, Jose, 82, who has health issues, live off social security benefits.
“I appreciate it,” said Ramirez, a former executive housekeeper. “I’m so happy because today I have something for my husband.”
Jose Ramirez used to work as a foreman at the Irvine Company. Rosa Ramirez comes to the Tustin Family & Youth Center nearly every day to fill up a bag of food received through the Second Harvest Food Bank – one of the center’s many programs.
This was the first year Ramirez received a Thanksgiving feast.
The center and the TPD work together each year to identify families in need of a Thanksgiving meal.
“This is our way of thanking you for supporting us and just wishing you a happy Thanksgiving,” Sgt. Jeff Taylor told the families.
Taylor got the program running 10 years ago.
Back then, the TPD was among eight law enforcement agencies that competed around Thanksgiving in a touch-football tournament called the Turkey Bowl. Participating officers decided to raise money for Thanksgiving meals for the needy, and a tradition was born.
The league since has stopped, but two six-person teams from the Tustin PD still compete annually, and did so a few hours after they handed out the 125 Thanksgiving meals on Wednesday.
Silvia Rodriguez has made it every year to the Thanksgiving meal handout.
“It’s important,” she said.
Twenty years ago, her husband, Martin, a mechanic, suffered burns in a work accident. Over the years, Rodriguez said, the Tustin PD has raised money for her and her husband to cover some rent and meals.
“My husband went five years without work,” Rodriguez said. “This helps us a lot. I’m glad there’s a program like this to help us, and I’m very grateful (to the Tustin PD) because they’re always thinking about the community.”
Said TPD Chief Stu Greenberg, who attended the Thanksgiving meal giveaway with several members of his command staff: “We’re getting something out of it, too.”
Added Greenberg: “It just makes you feel good, like you’re giving something to the community. That’s what the season’s supposed to be all about, right? It’s nice to see some folks come in and have something to look forward to: a nice meal.”
TPD Lt. Andy Birozy oversees the TPD’s Professional Standards Division, the division that organizes the annual Thanksgiving meal giveaway.
“Being able to give back to the community obviously is important,” Birozy said. “And our employees enjoy and cherish this type of event.”
Barbara Guerrero-Yanez is recreation coordinator at the Tustin Youth & Family Center.
“This year it’s really important,” said Guerrero-Yanez, who is in her 20th year at the center. “A lot of families have lost their jobs, and it’s getting really challenging with rents rising. We’re hearing a lot of sad stories about how people are having trouble making it.”
Former Tustin Mayor Al Murray, who termed out a year ago and now is executive director of the Tustin Chamber of Commerce, is a regular at the event. He showed up with his daughter, Emily, 14.
Rodrigo Cruz, 19, helps care for his sister, Priscilla, 12, and two younger brothers.
“Thanksgiving has always been hard for us,” Rodrigo said. “We’re not a whole family — my family has been broken up for a while.
“I’m happy that our family gets to spend Thanksgiving together, and I’m very, very grateful for (the Tustin PD). They’ve done a lot, and they’re doing so much for us today.”