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November 23, 2004 > Viola Blythe Center

Viola Blythe Center

Debbie Caravalho remembers sharing hallways with sleeping people and waiting to use the bathroom. Although her family's house was small, occupancy included not only her mother and father, Viola and Stanley, but typically a collection of visitors who, due to unfortunate circumstances, were without shelter for the night. In fact, one Christmas Eve, Debbie remembers a knock at the door; a family who were without food or gas for their car heard that salvation could be found at this house. Without hesitation, dinner on the table was scooped up and given to the family along with money for gas. Debbie was aghast, but her mother was confident that they would find an alternate meal and all would be well. The next day, after a lengthy search, they found a small restaurant that was open and Debbie says it was one of the best family Christmas gatherings they ever had!

Viola Blythe is a name that is synonymous with caring. Her mother died in childbirth of her eleventh child and Viola - the ninth - was sent to an orphanage at age four with three siblings until she was nine years old. Her young life was filled with hunger and deprivation and she vowed that if her circumstances improved, she would do something to prevent or soften such problems for others. This woman who grew up in an orphanage, separated from many of her eleven siblings, promised that she would return and take care of them. Although that promise was a bit unrealistic, it blossomed into a lifelong embrace of humanity.

From house, garage or a small city building that now stands on Ash Street in Newark, the Tri-City community has known that compassion and charity were always available from Viola. Debbie carries on Viola's legacy at Viola Blythe Community Center and fondly remembers the loving, fascinating and sometimes, confusing childhood with her mother and father. Sitting at a small desk in the cramped and active quarters of the center filled with volunteers busily distributing food, clothing and vouchers, Debbie points across the street to a little house that in 1946 was the first Blythe residence in Newark. "There was no garage. My dad built a garage for my mom [to store supplies] because she was the person who handled emergency services for the people of the area. My father was the quiet person in the background; he did a lot to help."

Viola and another kindred spirit, Louella Kellerman became the heart of the community that included many farm workers who had little money or means. A benevolent landowner asked Viola if she would, without revealing the source, shop and provide holiday cheer for families living in some of the houses he owned. She did and described it as "an unforgettable experience." If disaster struck a family in town, people would bring supplies to Viola, confident that she would make sure the family received assistance. "It grew from there," says Debbie, "to her new home down the street for the next forty years. She received pay by the Salvation Army five years out of the forty of service and during that time, worked out of a storefront on Thornton Avenue." When the funding ended, Viola moved back to her house, occasionally moving the operation to a trailer, school classrooms or "wherever she needed to go to keep things going."

People came to Viola at all times, day or night. Debbie says she remembers her mother sitting up with people in the wee hours of the night, making dinner and helping. "I never knew this was anything special; I grew up with it. I didn't always like sharing my toys and my room, but I never knew it was such a big deal. I remember canning plum jelly for hours and hours; my dad would pick the plums from our tree and we would make and can the jelly for two days and then give it all away!" Looking back over those years, Debbie knows that her mother was "one of a kind; someone with a big heart!"

One night, someone pounded at the door. Without any thought of danger, Debbie opened the door to find a man at the door. He asked to see her mom. When he came inside, Viola saw blood dripping from his coat - he had been in a fight. A neighbor helped to bind the arm and Viola talked with him all night, finally convincing him to go to the hospital for treatment. To this day, Debbie says this man will call her to stay in touch. Viola changed his life.

After thirty years of serving as a beacon for those in need, Viola was persuaded to take a break but found she could not stop her good works. Even though she volunteered at the Salvation Army, people kept calling and coming to the house, asking for help. Stan built a patio and shed that was continually filled with supplies and Viola's mission continued.

In 1989, the City of Newark, leased Viola a small building for $1/year where the Viola Blythe Community Services Center exists today. Viola retired and Debbie, who had been working as a caseworker at the Salvation Army, was asked to become the Program Director. The center now exists through donations and volunteers. Last year, it helped 7,500 clients and expects a record number of individuals and families in need this year as well. In her later years, Viola could often be found at the center until her death, July 5, 2002.

Although people rely on the Viola Blythe center at every time of the year, the holidays are when special emphasis is placed on providing cheer and good will. The Viola Blythe Center has responded with a Children's Christmas Party when Santa Claus makes an appearance with gifts and entertainment lifts the spirits of those who may be experiencing significant financial and emotional difficulties.

An "Adopt-A-Family" program matches families in need with donors (companies, groups and individuals) who would like to make this holiday season extra special. Donors are given the background and ages of a family so food, age appropriate gifts and supplies can be furnished. Thanksgiving, Christmas and other holidays can be rewarding for both those giving and receiving when the joy of laughter and warm feelings are shared.

Debbie says that many who support the center give all year and she is especially touched by those who have passed through the loving arms of Viola and her legacy to reach stability in their lives, then return to give back. "We are not a welfare department or restricted by governmental red tape, we can assist anyone who comes here and needs help." Some are simply going through a "rough patch" in their lives and move on to become self-sustaining citizens and even business owners!

Viola's efforts and the center's impact on the Tri-Cities have received widespread recognition. Included in these awards are the J.C. Penney Golden Rule Award, Channel 4 "For Those Who Care," Newark Volunteer of the Year and the Jaycees Distinguished Service Award. The City of Newark has named their annual volunteer recognition award for Viola presenting the Viola Blythe Volunteer of the Year Award to an outstanding community volunteer.

After decades of service to the community, many know about the Viola Blythe Center while others are referred by a network of support agencies throughout the Bay Area. There are no service fees and little paperwork for recipients; Debbie comments that Viola was an action person who saw no place for reams of documentation. If someone needed help, that was all that mattered. Even today, with a large inventory of people who depend on the center for help, documentation is kept to a minimum. The "eligibility" section of a new brochure says it all: "Children, men, women or families in immediate need of food, clothing or referrals."

Funding for the program is primarily dependent upon private sources. Schools, churches, companies and other organizations have been very generous and have helped to supply food, clothing, toiletries, bedding, school supplies, toys and, of course, cash. A partial current wish list includes cereal, margarine, stuffing, Jell-O, flour, sugar, juices, powdered milk, potatoes and vouchers from food and variety stores (i.e. Payless, Target, Toys-R-Us, etc.). Debbie says that items that are constantly in short supply are gifts for teens. She suggests gift certificates, movie passes, t-shirts, makeup, jewelry, video games and CDs.

Volunteers are the core of the program and they range from those serving on the Board of Directors to many others who process requests, stock shelves, plan holiday activities and coordinate food collection. A large group of volunteers is needed to help sort food and wrap gifts for this holiday season. The sorting and wrapping "party" will run from 5 p.m. - 8 p.m. on December 13, 14, 15 and 16 at 7220 Central Avenue in Newark. To volunteer, call (510) 794-3437. Donations are tax deductible.

Viola Blythe Center
37365 Ash Street, Newark
(510) 794-3437
Mon, Wed, Fri
12:00 - 4:00 p.m.
Currently Wed hours have been extended to 6 p.m.
(Holiday Season: M-F 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.)

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