2011-02-18 / Community

Former client is toast of Samaritan Center in Simi

By Carissa Marsh cmarsh@theacorn.com


FOOD FOR THOUGHT—Colleen Abbinanti, a former Simi Valley Samaritan Center client, won 1,000 Pop-Tarts in a Kellogg’s contest. She wrote about being homeless, how the center helped her, and her intention to donate her prize to the center if she won. 
IRIS SMOOT/Acorn Newspapers FOOD FOR THOUGHT—Colleen Abbinanti, a former Simi Valley Samaritan Center client, won 1,000 Pop-Tarts in a Kellogg’s contest. She wrote about being homeless, how the center helped her, and her intention to donate her prize to the center if she won. IRIS SMOOT/Acorn Newspapers It was a sweet scene earlier this month as Colleen Abbinanti hauled dozens of boxes of Pop- Tarts into the Samaritan Center.

As the boxes were stacked up one by one, the eyes of the center’s homeless clients lit up—they couldn’t wait to open the delivery and tear into the foil packages.

Abbinanti didn’t raid a supermarket to make the donation of a breakfast food usually favored by children. She won the toaster pastries— 1,000 in all—in Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts “Pop It Forward” contest.

In November Abbinanti saw a commercial for the contest and went to the brand’s Facebook page to learn more. There the company asked, “What would you do with 1,000—or 100,000 or 1 million— Pop-Tarts?”

Abbinanti knew the answer instantly.

“Almost two years ago I was homeless and I utilized the center heavily. I was here every day taking a shower, washing my clothes, eating, everything,” she recalled. “And I said (in my submission) I want nothing more than to be able to give back to the people that gave to me.

“And Betty (Eskey, executive director of the Samaritan Center), I call her my angel on earth. Betty saved my life when I couldn’t save my own.”

Abbinanti said her life crumbled in 2007. Due to the downturn in the economy, she lost her job as an accounts manager at a sales company in the San Fernando Valley.

Soon she was unable to pay rent on her Simi Valley apartment and, not knowing what she would do or where she would go, Abbinanti made the difficult decision to sign over full custody of her son to her ex-husband.

Originally from Thousand Oaks, Abbinanti said she came from a good family and had her needs met. She described herself as an “all-star” mom who volunteered with the PTA.

But life changed in the summer of 2007. Someone who once held in disdain the homeless person in front of the shopping center was now homeless herself, living in a tent in the hills on the west end of Simi.

“(When) it was me who was cold and hungry and who had nowhere to go, I unfortunately turned to drugs and alcohol, heavily,” she said. “Because when I was not high, I couldn’t deal with the emotions of not having my son, of not having a roof over my head, of not having anything. It was too much.”

Abbinanti came to the Samaritan Center in July 2007. But she said she finally “broke” in February 2009 when she agreed to go to a treatment center—the Clare Foundation in Santa Monica— to deal with her addiction to crystal meth.

In one week, on Feb. 25, Abbinanti will celebrate two years of being off drugs.

Today she’s living with her sister in Thousand Oaks and looking for a job. She says life isn’t perfect but she’s a lot better.

And since she’s been back on her feet, she comes to the center several times a week—not as a client but as a volunteer, cleaning tables, doing laundry and driving others to appointments.

“If I volunteered here every day for the rest of my life, it would never repay what I’ve been given,” she said.

The Pop It Forward contest is just one more small way Abbinanti has tried to help.

The online contest received more than 7,000 submissions, and the sweet treat’s Facebook fans voted for their favorite ideas. Though she “bugged” all her friends to vote, Abbinanti was still “blown away” when she found out that her short essay— recounting how the center helped in her walk through recovery— was a winner.

While they’re just toaster pastries, the foil-wrapped packages let the homeless recipients know someone cares.

“The majority of the people that are homeless out here, they don’t have family. They kind of feel like a throwaway. . . . I want to do whatever I can to help and show people that someone cares,” Abbinanti said. “The minute I pulled up here everybody was smiling, everybody was excited.”

Since the center is closed on Fridays, whole boxes were given to clients so they would have enough to eat throughout the weekend. Eskey said the rest would be handed out as snacks and used to stock the shelves of the community food pantry.

Eskey said Abbinanti’s energy and desire to help has been a good example to the clients at the center.

“The clients are excited because they see that somebody did something and something good came from it,” Eskey said. “Colleen is . . . always moving forward. She’s so thankful about her recovery and the services she received that she’s willing to do just about anything.”

Moorpark resident Tom Nixon, who’s known Abbinanti for five years and watched her go through her homelessness, said he’s impressed by his friend’s commitment to her recovery and her positive actions.

“ She went from a soccer mom to living in a tent homeless in Simi, and now she’s become a (productive) member of society again and doing everything in her power to give back,” Nixon said.

“A thousand Pop-Tarts makes no difference to Kellogg’s; it makes all the difference in the world to these people.”

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