It was a gloomy winter’s day in Aromas, and it was cold outside. AR Pointer and her husband Fred were sitting in the warm interior of their truck near the post office. They were watching a young woman cross the road with her children behind her. The kids were dressed in flip-flops and flimsy sweatshirts.
“What’s that mother thinking?” AR muttered.
“Well,” said Fred. “Maybe she’s got a choice, to either feed her family or clothe her family. And isn’t it better to feed them?”
At this point, about four years ago now, the Pointers had already spent years volunteering to help low-income and struggling families through the Second Harvest Food Bank, the Salvation Army and their own church. But all that was in Watsonville, where the Pointers had raised a family and lived for decades before moving to Aromas in the 1990s. Watsonville, a bustling ag town of 50,000, is only seven miles away from Aromas, across the Pajaro Valley, but psychologically anyway, it feels much farther.
Today, AR Pointer says the experience outside the Aromas Post Office four years ago led to a realization that her hometown wasn’t necessarily benefiting from all the good works that she and her husband were doing. “It took me a while to connect the dots,” she said. But she eventually came to a conclusion. “Let’s see what we can do for the people of Aromas.”
From that germ grew Neighbors Helping Neighbors, a non-profit charity group that has mushroomed in popularity and visibility in this quiet, hilly community that straddles three counties and is home to about 2,600 souls. Under the leadership of the Pointers, the registered non-profit has filled an enormous void in Aromas with a number of regular volunteer services including a twice-monthly distribution of free groceries, a monthly free luncheon for seniors and an annual adopt-a-family program that gives food, clothing, toys and books to struggling local families during the holidays.
On March 24, at the Aromas Community Grange, the Pointers and the volunteers behind NHN will take a break from their philanthropic work to put on a show. It’s the third straight year in which the group has produced a stage comedy at the Grange to both raise money for the program and to thank the community for its participation. The show sold out the last two years.
This year, the show is a pirate-themed whodunit, featuring local actors playing various rogues and scalliwags in a light-hearted original murder mystery surrounding a coveted treasure map. Call it “Neighbors Entertaining Neighbors.”
So where did the play come from? Like so many things in Aromas these days, the answer to that whodunit is the same: It’s AR Pointer.
“I just take someone else’s idea and expand on it,” she said of her pirate comedy. “I just write the play and get all the actors together, hand them the script and say, ‘Figure this out for yourself.’” The first year, she had hired a theater professional to run the show, but quickly learned that was not a good idea, that fun and community involvement was the goal, not award-winning theater. “I told her, ‘You’re looking for roses and I planted wildflowers.’ We’re not going to Broadway with this.”
It would surprise no one who knows her that AR has written the benefit play on top of everything else she does. She operates from a fearless do-it-yourself impulse, which combined with her energy and her instinct to help people, makes her a particularly effective community activist.
“She is an excellent model for volunteerism,” said Aromas resident Stephen Johnson, who will be one of the pirates in the play. “She taps a lot of people for a little bit of their time, and makes it work.”
“She has the biggest heart for people of anyone I’ve ever met,” said Gail Mutoza who teaches tai chi at the Aromas Grange and now sits on the board of directors for Neighbors Helping Neighbors. “She’s just unstoppable.”
Aromas is a community situated in the fold where the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Gabilan Range meet. That means it’s hilly terrain and many locals live in areas that, though not remote, can seem isolated and hidden. In such communities, people in need can be hidden as well.
When the Pointers first moved to Aromas from Watsonville more than 20 years ago, they considered it “the sticks.” “It seemed like it took forever to get out here,” laughed Fred, a retired railroad connector/brakeman. AR knew something of the nooks and crannies of Aromas because she worked as a real estate agent in the area. But their considerable charitable work was oriented toward Watsonville—until that moment outside the post office.
Through Second Harvest, the Pointers quickly set up the free food distribution at the Aromas Grange. Such food distributions had taken place in Aromas before, they were told, but they attracted very few people. The newly christened Neighbors Helping Neighbors organization spread the word through the Grange and AR—her unusual name is not initials, but a shorthand for her given name Ardel—quickly moved to get the group its 501(c)3 non-profit status (According to tax records, NHN took in just shy of $84,000 in revenues in 2016).
The group worked to get the word out to people in need—elderly, disabled, living alone. Mindful of people’s reluctance to show up in public to receive charity, AR set up the distribution to make it as easy as possible. Other than some demographic information for record-keeping, no questions are asked. Volunteer workers are kept to a minimum to prevent a community gauntlet that recipients would have to negotiate. There’s an in-one-door-out-another set-up to the event, which takes place the first and third Tuesday of every month. These days, the distribution attracts about 70 people on average, which, the Pointers calculate, means between 200 and 300 people are getting fed in the community.
“That’s why she’s able to get so many people to respond,” said board member Julia Alonzo of AR Pointer, “because she is always so understanding about where each and every person is coming from.”
Then came the free senior luncheon, which happens the first Wednesday of every month at the Grange, in which Fred and AR preside over the kitchen, preparing meals and providing an opportunity for social interaction for people who otherwise don’t get out much. On top of that, the Pointers still work through their church and the Salvation Army in serving the homeless free meals, and they assist another food provider in bringing hot meals to Aromas residents who can’t leave their homes.
“Her drive, her energy, her contacts,” said NHN’s Janet Martinez of AR. “She’s the backbone making all this happen.”
“My husband and I joke all the time,” said Gail Mutoza, “it just wouldn’t be Aromas without AR. It would just be ‘-Omas.’”
Through it all, AR knows something about the ugly impulse to judge those looking for help. She remembers a moment years ago at another free food giveaway in which a woman drove up in an expensive car with two well-dressed young children.
“I thought, ‘What are they doing here, picking up free food?’” But then she learned the woman’s story. Her husband had left her, she has lost her home and was asking neighbors to allow her children to sleep on their couch.
“And I thought, ‘Shame on me,’” said AR. “Yes, it’s a nice car, but she’s living in it. It was a horrible situation and you can just never judge a book by its cover.” Looking over to her stalwart husband, she added, “When you have enough, and obviously we have enough, we have just taken the attitude that it’s time to build a longer table.”
‘Murder, Mystery & Treasure @ the Pirates Pillagin’ Tavern’
A benefit for Neighbors Helping Neighbors
Saturday, March 24, doors open at 5:30 p.m.
Aromas Community Grange, 400 Rose Ave., Aromas
$35, dinner and a play; $25, play only.
For more information, go to bpt.me/3322827
Neighbors helping Aromas