When Oscar Gonzalez arrived in Washington from El Salvador two years ago with his four children, he discovered that his wife, who had preceded them here by seven years, had taken up with another man. Gonzalez, who does not speak English, soon found himself jobless with no place for himself and his children to live.
Police officers aware of Gonzalez's plight passed his name on to the department's Outreach Program, which passed it on to the "Adopt-a-Family" program that the department had started in conjunction with the Government Printing Office.
Jorge Ponce, a supervisory librarian at the GPO who is bilingual, was asked if he would act as a "family representative" for the program and work with Gonzalez.
"It wasn't just a matter of acting as an interpreter, it was a commitment to Hispanics," Ponce said. "It was an offer I could not refuse."
Ponce helped Gonzalez find a place to live in Adams-Morgan and also went with him to city agencies that could offer Gonzalez financial assistance.
Gonzalez has been out of the Adopt-a-Family program a year, but Ponce still keeps in contact with him.
Such dedication is not unusual among family representatives in the Adopt-a-Family program. When Charlene Stevenson, who works in the Bindery Division of the GPO became involved with a family, she said, "It opened up my heart right away."
"The whole program is a rewarding experience," said Andrew Brown, who works in the electronics section.
Hattie Pierce, who has worked with three needy families during the last two years, said, "It's a great sense of satisfaction to see people progress."
Adopt-a-Family is the brainchild of Ralph E. Kennickell, head of the GPO, who in a meeting two years ago with Police Chief Maurice T. Turner Jr. suggested that the GPO and the police form a program to help give something back to the Washington community.
The first result of this cooperative effort was Civic Partners, initiated in April 1985 to pair youths with adult volunteers from the GPO.
Adopt-a-Family was started in November 1985. In the program, a screening committee made up of GPO volunteers receives the names of families in need of help. (These names are usually provided by the police.) The GPO committee then contacts the family, which does not necessarily have any connections to GPO, and arranges a meeting at the family's home.
"We're looking for families that are truly in need, and who are interested in improving themselves," said Brown, a member of the screening committee.
If a family is accepted into the program, one of the GPO volunteers is assigned as a family representative, then a division of the GPO "adopts" the family and offers its help.
Divisions take up collections that may help the adopted family pay rent or utility bills. Money collections also go to buy groceries, which GPO workers deliver on their own time once a month. GPO workers also donate clothes, use the collection money to buy used furniture and school supplies, and during the Christmas season, gifts for children.
The Laurel office of the GPO recently started an Adopt-a-Family program. It initially adopted a Washington family and has added a family from Laurel.