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Morongo tribe donates in the spirit of the season

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CABAZON, Calif. - A few decades ago the Morongo Band of Mission Indians knew all about charity. During the holiday season local church groups and other philanthropic organizations would make seemingly routine visits to the perpetually destitute reservation in the desert east of Los Angeles to bring holiday food and gifts for the children. Now the Morongos are returning the good deeds. In the spirit of the season, the tribe donated more than $30,000 to charitable causes in its local community in Riverside County.

At a recent event in San Francisco, tribal chairwoman Mary Ann Andreas recalled the times when charitable organizations would come to the reservation at Thanksgiving and Christmas when most Morongo families did not have the means to provide for themselves.

"That's something you never forget," said Andreas, who said the memory was the primary motivating factor for the tribe to set up the Morongo tribal Charitable Outreach Committee.

Times have changed for the Morongo Band. Now with nearly 2,000 tribal employees it has become one of the largest employers in the county. According to ECOPAC, an association of economic developers, it is the single largest employer in the Banning Pass area. It is now the Morongo tribe that is delivering holiday goodies in an area that has been among the hardest hit in the latest economic downturn in the Golden State.

The tribe, along with an Indian "Mrs. Claus" visited a local elementary school on Dec. 20 armed with stockings filled with fruit, candy and gift certificates for more than 300 school children. In addition to Mrs. Claus, team of tribal members gave the gifts and included cupcakes for each of the children.

The elementary school is in the neighboring town of Cabazon, a largely white, dusty hamlet about 50 miles east of Los Angeles where unemployment is running at much higher levels than the state average.

Meanwhile the tribe is also giving out $100 gift certificates good at local markets for each of the 45 non-Indian families living on their reservation.

Additionally the tribe is making donations topping $30,000 to such local organizations as the Riverside County Foster Parents Association, the Romoland School District and the Red Barn Help Ministries.

Morongo tribal Charitable Outreach Committee chairwoman Anne Hutton said that her committee was formed in 1995 after the tribe was besieged by requests from local organizations seeking donations.

"We decided then that we needed a committee to handle all the requests," said Hutton.

Over the last several years the Charitable Outreach Committee has grown and expanded in scope. In the past two years, among other activities, the tribe has donated holiday meals to hundreds of local farm workers and has donated hundreds of pairs of shoes to children in the local community.

This year, at Thanksgiving, the tribe donated over 10,000 turkeys to southern California families in need.

Hutton said that the main reason for the expansion in charitable gifts has also been the expansion of tribal economic enterprises. These include not only the successful Casino Morongo, but also one of the largest gas stations in the country and a series of chain restaurants located off Interstate 10, the main thoroughfare between Los Angeles and Palm Springs.

Though Morongo has experienced a great degree of economic success, Hutton feels that her committee is an important reminder of where the Morongo tribe were themselves not so long ago.

"We know only too well what hard times are all about. Like many of the families we are trying to help, our struggles are far from over. But Christmas is an opportunity to give of what you have."