A group of volunteers for Believe in Miracles prepare to make gift bags in Dec. 2019. Monica Mehren Thompson/Courtesy
Monica Mehren Thompson sat with a group of seven friends and family members in her former home in Mission Viejo and shared an article she had read about giving circles. From that conversation, they formed a group called Believe in Miracles, which has given over $100,000 to Orange County residents since 2003.
The gifts are small and range usually between $100 to $300, but they make a significant difference to the recipients.
For people struggling to make ends meet, the group will often use their resources to help out with a food or gas card. They may purchase back-to-school clothes for children or fulfill special needs like new reading glasses, a jacket to keep someone warm during the winter or a new refrigerator for an organization that works with seniors. They also respond to specific needs for seniors which can include something as small as a pair of slippers, a lamp for reading, a robe for chilly mornings or a set of plates so an elderly couple didn’t have to eat off cardboard boxes any longer.
A giving circle is a group of people who pledge to give a set donation of money on a regular basis, then pool their money together and choose recipients in need. With more than 1,600 giving circles in the United States, they fill the gaps where nonprofits are unable to help and offer a more localized, connected type of philanthropy. Giving circles are also different from nonprofits in that they generally have no administrative overhead and every dollar donated, goes to fill a need.
Thompson’s group meets four times a year and determines how much money is available to distribute, then they decide on the recipients. Soon after the meeting, recipients receive their gift and a letter that gives some information about the group. Thompson says Believe in Miracles has a rule of not responding to direct requests — no one can just come to the group for help, they must be referred by someone who has vetted them — also, there is no regifting.
Liaisons are the heart of the organization and these leaders develop relationships with senior centers, schools and community organizations. When any of these groups need something, they contact them to see if they can fulfill the need.
“Liaisons make all the calls, I want to raise leaders up in the group so that they own a piece of it,” Thompson said.
The group continued to meet once a quarter at Thompson’s home, until there were so “many good-hearted people,” that they outgrew the space and began meeting at her office at Kaiser Permanente. Thompson also opened two other giving circles in Huntington Beach and Yorba Linda in 2014.
When the coronavirus hit, she began using Zoom for their quarterly meetings and now simply shares her screen and the group compiles a list of needs and recipients. This change has made it easier for people who want to be active in the process.
When Thompson started Believe in Miracles, she decided that her group would be about cheerful giving. The encouraged amount is a dollar per day, for a total of $91.25 per quarter, but she does not really keep track. Some people give much more, while others are unable to pay and spend time and effort doing other activities to support the organization.
Making a Difference
A gift basket is filled with toiletries and household goods for a family in need. Monica Mehren Thompson/Courtesy
Thompson has a plastic bin stuffed with thank you notes that sits in her home, now in Laguna Beach. Hundreds of notes express the gratitude people felt when Believe in Miracles stepped up to help them.
“Just a note of thanks for the Target gift card that we received. wrote one recipient, wrote one recipient. It helped us through a tough time. Through your gift, we were able to stock our refrigerator, and get some household and hygiene items. Thanks to your help, we feel nurtured, thought of, and cared for, which goes beyond having our physical needs met. Thank you so much from the bottom of our hearts.”
Thompson realizes that the gifts are small monetarily, but they have a significant impact.
“We give people hope,” Thompson said. “It lets people know that they are cared for and that they are not alone and that makes a difference. A $100 to $300 won’t solve the problems that got them there, but we just want to show them it’s not such a mean world.”
When COVID-19 hit this year, Thompson reached out to the head of the Sawdust Festival, an annual event for artists and makers to sell their wares in an outdoor marketplace.
She realized that there were many artists who would not be making an income with the event being canceled. Through her efforts, she was able to give out three food cards to artists who were struggling and didn’t know what to do.
Thank you, wrote an artist who received a gift card. “You made me feel not so alone,”
Thompson shared another story about a woman who had two teenage children and her husband had left. The woman was trying to make ends meet for her family and was working with Uber, in addition to working two other part time jobs. One of the liaison partners referred her to Believe in Miracles and Thompson made arrangements to meet the woman and give her a $300 gas card.
“The woman just put her arms around me and sobbed,” Thompson said.
For many years, Believe in Miracles did Thanksgiving baskets. They bought the food, then met and assembled fifty baskets in someone’s driveway and delivered them to the recipients who had been selected.
One woman who was to receive one of the baskets lived in Lake Forest and when Thompson told her that she was a recipient, the woman said that she unfortunately could not accept the basket. Upon further inquiry, Thompson found out that the woman’s family lived in a motel and they had no way to prepare the meal. So Thompson and her kids prepared the holiday meal for the family, then delivered it to them.
“They have a face and a name, that’s when it becomes more human.” Thompson said.
The group has also identified the needs of homeless college students and allocated $300 to buy things for the kitchen at Homeless Intervention Shelter and House, a transitional housing shelter. They have created hygiene bags for the homeless and helped with an after-school program that provides help with homework for under served Placentia families. They have also been able to expand their reach with individuals who work in the schools and give out food gift cards to families in need.
These are the stories that keep Thompson engaged and committed to sharing the organization with others.
Monica Mehren Thompson story
Thompson, now retired, was a hospice physician for 25 years and went to University of California San Diego and George Washington University for Medical School. She completed her boards in internal medicine, hospice and geriatrics and worked for Kaiser Permanente.
She grew up in a family of seven in Los Angeles. Her parents were active in church and the community and made a point to help others in need. At an early age, Thompson saw that giving was core to their family values.
After Thompson and her husband split up, she raised her two boys as a single mother. Through her commitment to helping others she continued to demonstrate that giving was an important part of their family life and it made an impression on her children.
Her younger son went away to college and upon returning home, “he got the spirit.” He wanted to meet up with his high school classmates and came up with the idea of holding a party and rented a room at Hennessey’s Tavern in Laguna Beach. He advertised the event and decided on his own to help others the way his mother had always done— which led to making an impact on people he didn’t even know.
The catch to attend the party was that everyone had to donate $10 to Believe in Miracles. The kids thought it was so cool that some of them gave $30, some even gave more.
With the $605 they raised, it helped Believe in Miracles to purchase 30 Acer Chrome books. These tablets were given to students so they could complete their work to graduate, through Robyne’s Nest, a non-profit that helps foster children who age out of the system.
Thompson was delighted that her son had followed in her footsteps in doing philanthropy work. His leadership involved many young people who were able to see how the power of coming together could make an impact.
“I’m so proud of him, and that I was able to give him that spirit of giving,” Thompson said.
Religion was part of Thompson’s upbringing and remains a constant for her today.
“Faith is everything to me,” Thompson said.
More importantly for Thompson, it is not just talking about her faith but demonstrating it through her actions. The organization has allowed her to make a difference in the community and to help others do the same.
“It is about taking an active role in loving and caring for one another,” Thompson said.
Through her work with the group, she knows that appearances can be deceiving and people often go through struggles that others are not aware of.
“Have a Christ-like attitude because you never know someone’s story.” Thompson said. “Be more tolerant, less judgmental. People make poor decisions, but that doesn’t make them poor people.”
Future of Believe in Miracles
Thompson now lives in Laguna Beach with her husband and her goal is to raise leaders who will continue to grow the impact that Believe in Miracles has in Orange County. Currently between the Mission Viejo and Huntington Beach groups, they have approximately 85 people, though participation level varies.
As she looks toward the future, it is the mentoring of other circle giving groups that give her the most joy. So far, she has started five other Believe in Miracles groups and acted as their advisor.
“I don’t do any publicity or fundraising, it’s just not in my DNA to do it,” Thompson said. “Everyone in the group has joined because of a friend or articles in the Register newspaper.”
She encourages people that have a passion for caring in our community to become involved.
“I would love for it to grow– we always have more needs than money,” Thompson said.
For those interested in learning more about the organization click here.