Florence Ponziano could use a little more help than usual this Christmas.
Florence, 80 years old yet seemingly indefatigable, is once again hosting her annual Christmas party for her Montopolis neighbors (especially children), visitors, donors, and anyone interested in holiday cheer. This year, the party takes place at her home on Kemp Street, aka “Comfort House” – the Do-It-Herself center of Ponziano’s decades-long project in helping anyone and every one of her neighbors who might need help.
In some years, Florence has held a larger Christmas event, at nearby Frontier Valley, where there is more room for more guests. She’s returned to Comfort House this year, with its large side yard/playground, because she’s moving a little more slowly. Florence was diagnosed with breast cancer a few weeks ago – “invasive ductal carcinoma” is the forbidding medical term – and has since endured a double mastectomy, followed by a course of radiation treatment.
Florence’s reaction: “What do I need boobs for anymore?,” followed by an immediate return to her preparations for the Christmas party. During a recent conversation with the Chronicle – after the mastectomy, a few days before radiation – she says, “People can still call me, but in the afternoons, after I get back from the hospital.”
Those remarks reflect Ponziano’s indomitable spirit, as well as her sometimes hard-headed refusal to acknowledge what other people generally consider intractable reality. She doesn’t own a car, so she carries food in a wagon to needy neighbors who can’t make it to Comfort House to share breakfast. Living primarily on Social Security, she ignores her own needs to help neighbors and children living in even more precarious circumstances. She also insists that those she helps, especially the children, give back, and volunteer to help in any way they can. “You have to give back,” she says. “Everybody needs to pitch in. I can’t do it all myself.”
Nevertheless, she seems determined to try, assisted by Comfort House volunteers, donors, and anybody who can spare work, dollars, food, clothing, or sundries for her home-based “food pantry,” and right now, support or assistance for the Christmas party. “Gently used toys,” she requests. “New toys just seem to get broken faster – the used ones survive longer.” This year she’s especially been asking for soccer balls – “All the kids keep asking for soccer balls” – a contemporary trend not unique to Montopolis.
Florence has received official and unofficial recognition for her efforts – only a few of those noted on the Comfort House website – where she and her board of directors also ask for funds, or direct donations of various necessities: “non-perishable food/drinks (unopened), new/gently used baby + kids clothes, diapers/pull-ups, dog/cat food, art supplies.” (Florence is also known for her own extraordinary art pieces, many of them castoffs delicately converted into glittering objects.)
Despite her increasingly precarious health (currently featuring a persistent infection, as well as a limp due to an injured hip), Florence can’t sit still. “I bounce around, and I never give up,” she says.
“I see people complaining, or getting angry, but they don’t do anything,” says Karen Baker, a longtime friend. “Florence wakes up, and she feeds people. … I worry she’s driving herself too hard.”
“It takes a very special person to do what Florence does,” says Comfort House board president Jessica Frick. Frick encourages others to pitch in, especially now. Supporters can donate directly through the website, via the wish list on Amazon, or mailing checks to Comfort House, at 515 Kemp St. Austin 78741.
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