NEIGHBORS AND VOLUNTEERS

Larry

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On a cold and rainy November morning at a church parking lot in SE Austin, Larry is one of the first persons waiting for the arrival of the Central Texas Food Bank (CTFB) mobile food pantry truck. Larry has made his way from his North Austin apartment by two bus connections, his main mode of transportation in Austin. After the truck rumbles into the Prince of Peace Lutheran parking lot, Larry helps the driver, Doug, unload and ready the palleted food items for distribution.

Larry will work both sides of the same table this bleak morning. He is a willing volunteer who helps with distribution, and like many others who gather in the lot, a grateful receiver of the bounty brought by the truck.

CTFB carries out seventeen mobile food pantry distributions each month in Travis County. Helping out at the mobile distributions is what Larry calls his part-time job. “I try to make all of them where the bus can take me—about seven or eight a month.” When he needs to, he takes groceries home with him.

Larry says that from his earliest memories he’s suffered with twitching and trying to control his movements. “Sometimes I’ll try to hold a glass of water, and . . . I can’t hold it.” He also deals with high blood pressure. Because of his condition—his physical tics are fairly constant—he doesn’t like getting his picture taken. But as long he’s able to pose with another person, he’ll smile for the camera. (Thanks to mobile food pantry volunteer and UT student Edith for posing with Larry.)

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Born and raised in the Austin area, Larry graduated from Lockhart High School in 1981. He worked construction jobs and in numerous restaurants as a younger man. As he got older, his condition worsened, making it difficult for him to stay steadily employed. He subsequently filed for disability.

A few years back, he happened upon some commotion in a parking lot close to his apartment in the St. Johns neighborhood. He investigated the scene and saw a truck with its gate down, and people gathered around. It was a CTFB mobile pantry food distribution. He introduced himself to the CTFB site lead, Anchal, who asked Larry if he spoke any Spanish. He said sure—and as if pre-ordained—she asked if he could help out distributing frozen meat. He was immediately hooked, and he’s been helping out ever since. Larry came to the initial Bread For All mobile food pantry distribution at Prince of Peace on East Oltorf in June 2017, and made its monthly distribution permanent in his “part-time job” schedule.

“The thanks and the smile you get from people—it means a lot. You can be in the food line, upset and thinking about something that happened to put you in a bad mood. But you see a person across the table who talks to you very nice, with a smile.” He pauses and his face brightens, “And, you forget about it!” He says he tries to be that person who brings a bit of joy to the food line, whichever side he’s on.

“That’s what I like about being here. Some people can bring the goodness out of you, just with a smile or a couple of kind words.”

About Larry’s volunteer service at the various mobile distribution sites, Anchal says, “Larry is a great help. Most of our volunteers are first-timers—which is great—but Larry really knows our program well and can step up and take on any roll that we need.” Whether distributing food at the tables, helping to supply the tables from the pallets, or assisting neighbors by taking their groceries to their cars or rides—Larry can do it all. And, he’s happy to do it. “Thank you all,” he says in response to a question about why he volunteers, “for the opportunity to help out.”

This cold morning in the Prince of Peace parking lot, the rain, although light, hasn’t let up. Larry is one of the last persons at the distribution site—which is typical—as he helps Doug and Anchal and a few other volunteers with the takedown and clean up.

Moments later, Larry walks away with two backpacks carefully strapped down to a wheeled suitcase. He goes to the bus stop on East Oltorf with some groceries in his packs, and with plans to show up the next morning in Montopolis—for the CTFB’s mobile food pantry distribution there.


 

Gloria

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“Eye-opening” is how Gloria describes the first time she came to Bread For All. She says she was nervous and apprehensive about coming because of a few previous experiences at other food pantries—none particularly positive. “From the time I walked in the door at Bread For All—I’ll never forget—someone greeted me, smiling.” It was a game-changer for Gloria.

Six years ago, Gloria was diagnosed with diabetes. After the initial diagnosis, she took pills for her disease but, admittedly, wasn’t disciplined with her diet. As a result, her disease progressed rapidly.

A few years after the diagnosis, she became overweight and was very sick. A new treatment regimen required her to take insulin injections. A nurse counseled her, however, and said that she could manage her diabetes by following a proper diet. Because Gloria was retired and on a fixed income, the nurse recommended that she visit the Bread For All (BFA) Food Pantry and follow a disciplined diet including more fresh vegetables and fruits, and avoid sweets.

“The first time I came to the food pantry, there was a big box of Splenda.” She felt as if the counsel from the nurse to avoid sweets was divinely directed. Gloria took the Splenda home—which she had never liked—and it helped her give up sweets. “I love Splenda now! Even though I was a diabetic, I wasn’t disciplined in my diet. But I’ve since gone from a size 14 dress to a size 8,” she says with a big smile, “and my health is much improved.” She no longer has to take insulin shots.

A daughter of Gloria’s lives in San Antonio where she directs a new food pantry from her church. When she told Gloria about the plan to establish the pantry, Gloria gave her some advice based on her own personal experience: “Mija, when the people come in—especially the senior citizens—I want you to greet them with a smile . . . People who go to your pantry need a smile and a warm greeting.” Her daughter, she says, has taken her mother’s good advice and reminds her pantry volunteers to put on their smiles when neighbors come to receive food.

Gloria, a life-long resident of Austin’s Montopolis neighborhood, has twenty-seven grandchildren. She says that she has told every one of them about her positive experiences at BFA—the smiles, the warm greetings, and her improved health based upon choosing fresh fruit and vegetables, available to her and others, at the food pantry.


 

Herman

 

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Herman at Bread For All – July 2018

 

Energy! Eye contact! Enthusiasm! These qualities naturally spill forth from Bread For All volunteer Herman every Monday as he takes his usual place in line where he shows neighbors an array of items, depending on the particular week’s supply, from grooming products and jarred peppers to yogurt covered raisins. Herm lights up as he interacts with neighbors – his exuberance comes from his personal and professional experiences.

Herm grew up a military brat which led to him to attend five different high schools during the late ’60s – the heyday of the Civil Rights Era. His high school path included schools in the south and north. At the beginning of his sophomore year in Louisiana, a science teacher told him that he wasn’t in favor of Herm’s “kind” being in the same school with white kids. Herm was the only black student in the biology class. The teacher said that he’d grade Herm’s work, nevertheless, for its own merits. Herm got a B in the class but thought he easily earned an A. Herm wanted to compete for the track team at the newly integrated high school. He was disappointed to discover that the athletic programs in his school’s district were still segregated – only whites could compete. What his mother had always told him gave him a shield of protection against some of the racism he experienced: “You’re always going to have to be twice as good as white people to be successful.” Two and a half years later, in Ohio, Herm graduated third in his class of 274 students. That same year, 1970, he was finally able to don a track team jersey, competing for his high school team in the 220-yard run and the long jump.

Decades later after tracing his father’s footsteps, Herm retired from more than twenty-five years of military service. While working US Army and Air Force job posts monitoring civil rights and equal opportunity, Herm completed both a bachelor’s and master’s degree. As a civilian, he went to work for the State of Texas’s Health and Human Services (HHS) in its Civil Rights Office. Eventually, Herm would serve as director of the office, tasked with the responsibility to ensure that HHS’s agencies and those contracting with them complied with federal and state civil rights laws and regulations. It gave Herm ample opportunity to interact with state employees and many others, providing education on issues of equality and promoting civility in human relationships. Toward the end of his service as director of the office, Herm decided to pursue a Ph.D. in education. His dissertation (linked here) is a qualitative study of eight black males in pursuit of higher education, examined through the lens of critical race theory, comparing and contrasting their successful journeys despite the racism that hampered each one of them. He completed the degree in 2012.

“Breaking down barriers and treating people with respect and dignity is what I’ve been about for a long time.” His dissertation includes his own story, and details part of his final year in high school when he and a white classmate canvassed lunchrooms talking to fellow students about prevalent name-calling and racist behavior. Herm and his cohort, Bob, weren’t best buddies – Herm didn’t like Bob’s country music, and Bob didn’t like Herm’s psychedelic soul music – but they wanted to be role models at their school to show that honest conversation about important issues could happen with respect, even when participants disagreed. It became Herm’s life work, and an important subject matter of his doctoral study.

Herm was baptized at St. John’s/San Juan, an Austin City Lutherans (ACL) congregation, in 2005. His parents didn’t take him to church when he was a child, but he remembers attending a Lutheran congregation with a neighboring white family in New York while living there. As an adult seeker, he felt comfortable in black Baptist churches, but immediately felt at home when he walked into St. John’s/San Juan Lutheran. Herm agrees, as was stated by Martin Luther King Jr., that the most segregated time in the United States should not be during Sunday worship!

When ACL started Bread For All in 2013, Herm was one of the first volunteers to get involved. “My faith is very important to me, but faith without acts is not enough. That’s why I volunteer. I’ve been blessed with an abundance of resources and good health. I can write checks . . . but that’s not enough, either. The doing, the touching, the seeing, the lifting up, and the bringing of joy, that’s why I volunteer at the food pantry.

“I benefit substantially when I see a smile on another face. My own joy increases when I have an opportunity to share something with our neighbors because that’s closer to the truer sense of who we are as Lutherans and Christians: helping one another. It makes me more complete.”

Bread For All is grateful to have Herm as one of its consistent volunteers. A bridger who connects with peoples of different backgrounds and experiences, Herm makes our gathered BFA community on Monday evenings not only more complete, but sufficiently spirited!

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Milagros

Milagros (Mee-LAH-gros) is a Bread For All neighbor who was invited to the food pantry by a friend at the apartment complex where they both live, a mile and a half away from the food pantry. Her name, which Spanish language speakers also use as a noun, means “miracles.” She lives on fixed income and calls Bread For All a “lifesaver.”

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Milagros at the City View Apartments Common Area – May 2018

Milagros was born the fourth of an eventual seven siblings to parents who migrated to New York City from Puerto Rico. Her dad served in the US Merchant Marine during WW II. Like most American kids of Puerto Rican descent in her neighborhood, Milagros was (and is) a double-native speaker, mastering Spanish at home and English at school. Fascinated with the melody of Spanish, she studied as much Spanish as she could at her Bronx high school and grooved to the salsa rhythms of Eddie Palmieri and Héctor Lavoe in her neighborhood.

As a young woman, she married. Milagros was extremely disappointed to discover she was unable to have children. This reality, in part, led to the demise of her marriage. Milagros decided to leave New York.

By the mid-1990s, she made her way to Central Texas – as did some of her siblings and their children. Initially, she worked at Walmart and Mr. Gatti’s. She landed an entry level job with the state of Texas but needed to supplement her income by working at a Dollar General store in the evenings. During this time, she helped out family, as some of her nieces and nephews lived with her. By the turn of the century, she noticed that pain coursed down her legs at night. It was the beginning of sciatica that would eventually make her use a walker to get around. She had to stop working and applied for Section 8 housing, hers becoming one of five million American households that receive housing assistance from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. A few years into using a walker, she was diagnosed with diabetes. In 2013, she began to use a motorized wheelchair.

“I pray for God to take away my pain. The sciatica pain makes it hard for me to sleep at night. But it’s no use for me to be grumpy and grouchy and complain about everything. I know there are other people who have worse problems than I do.

“Sometimes I share what I bring home from the food pantry with my neighbor, who’s taking care of her own adult daughter who had a stroke and is disabled in a wheelchair.”

Milagros not only knows physical pain, but emotional pain as well. She admits to dealing with depression, and she figures it’s due to not being able to work and be a “doer” as she was previously capable. But she does what she can, and that includes getting on a Cap Metro bus one Monday each month to come by the Bread For All Food Pantry. Talkative with other neighbors and volunteers in both of her languages, Milagros carefully motors through the line and chooses her groceries. After making her way to the end of the line by the kitchen, she asks a volunteer to strap her bags behind the headrest of her wheelchair where carrots, onions, canned goods, and her beloved beans and rice will make the return trip with her to the apartment complex.

Milagros grew up Protestant, married a Catholic, but today doesn’t label herself as one or the other. She says she appreciates the voluntary prayer – the blessing upon the table of goods gathered – before food distribution at the food pantry. “Sometimes I cry during the prayer. I’m very grateful for the volunteers at the food pantry. They’re so friendly.”

She explains that she often cries when she prays. “I wish things were better in the world today, but unfortunately, they’re not. I wish people were more understanding of one another . . . ” Her voice trials off. Like so many of us, Milagros perceives a gulf of difference between what is and what could be, not only in her own life but in the life of the world. Even so, true to her name, she hopes for that day when that great gulf is significantly lessened. And we are with her, side by side, working as neighbors and waiting for the day when this type of miracle becomes the norm.

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Carol & Jane

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“We’re here to lend a helping hand, and not to pass judgment on anyone,” Jane (right) says in response to a question about the purpose of the Bread For All Food Pantry at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Southeast Austin. “We all need help – the single mom who’s got kids to feed, the disabled, the working class folks who come in, and the homeless people.

“Most of all, to be able to know that the person we just helped can get on the right path again – that’s the most gratifying part.”

Jane was part of the original planning group that met over a period of eight months prior to the pantry’s opening in September 2013. She’s served as the pantry’s food purchaser ever since. By the time Bread For All closes its doors on Monday evenings at 7:30 p.m., Jane has already started the process of figuring what she’ll need to purchase for the upcoming Monday evening. Every Wednesday morning at 10:00 a.m., Jane accesses the Central Texas Food Bank (CTFB) website menu and matches up Bread For All’s needs with food available for purchase. Financial donations to Bread For All – mostly from the fifteen congregations that make up Austin City Lutherans – allow Jane to purchase peanut butter, canned goods, rice and beans, frozen meat, and miscellaneous items that CTFB is able to stock. Jane also orders fresh produce – as available – for which the food bank supplies to agency food pantries without charge.

Jane, who loves to cook, says that her maternal grandmother, Essie, showed her how to navigate in and around a kitchen. She pauses and smiles at the good memories of her grandmother that flood her mind, and comments that Essie had the deepest and prettiest blue eyes.  “She could make something out of nothing in the kitchen, and she taught me how to be frugal. Even with someone else’s money,” she laughs, “I’m still a frugal shopper.”

Carol (left) also has a sense of mission that is fulfilled when she comes to help out at the pantry every Monday. Jane invited her friend to help out at the opening of the pantry – both were members of Prince of Peace – and Carol’s been part of the Monday team ever since. “I like to stay active,” she says, “and I like to be around people.” During free moments, Carol buries her fingers in yarn and deftly maneuvers a crochet hook. She makes hats for her grandkids and the children of her numerous nieces and nephews.

Every Monday Carol drives from her home in a suburb south of Austin and picks up Jane, who doesn’t drive. They and other volunteers arrive at Prince of Peace just after the noon hour to set up tables and chairs in the fellowship hall, and set out the canned food not distributed the previous week. Bread and tortillas, picked up from a sister food pantry that morning, are also set out. At 2:00 p.m. more volunteers arrive fresh from the food bank docks, their pick-ups or SUVs weighed down with the food that Jane ordered the previous Wednesday. This food is brought in and also set out for distribution. By 3:30 p.m., the tables are loaded down with potatoes, cabbages, cereal, seasonal fruit, canned goods, coolers of frozen meat, and other items – all of them gathered for neighbors in SE Austin who are in need of a helping hand.

By 6:00 p.m., Jane and Carol are at their respective posts in the pantry kitchen and gaze out into the open hall where neighbors walk from table to table and fill their grocery bags. Jane will then grab a seat, and start in on her weekly sizing up of her grocery list for 40-50 people and their dependents, many of these children. Carol stands and tends to the neighbors who file by the kitchen counter, the pantry’s last stop adjacent to the exit door, where she offers rice, pasta, and dried beans.

Both Carol and Jane live with disabilities. Jane is legally blind, from a condition that developed as a result of her premature birth. Carol survived a bad car wreck in 2005, and as a result suffers from a bad back that limits her ability to work. When necessary, both ladies walk through the line themselves as neighbors in need of food. “It’s a relief,” Jane says, “to know that a little helping hand is there each month if I need it.”

Before exiting through the door, a few neighbors will look at Carol and Jane and make purposeful eye contact. Some say “Thank you,” and others say “Bless you.” Carol smiles brightly and bids these neighbors to have a good week. “I don’t want others to feel humiliated,” Carol says, “because of their need. I try to treat everyone who comes through the line nicely and with respect. I know what it’s like to walk through the line.”

To the neighbors who thank and bless her, Jane simply responds with a knowing smile and a nod of her head. It’s all the inspiration she needs to boot up her computer on Wednesday morning to make her cyber-grocery run, and then return to the pantry the next Monday afternoon with Carol so they can do their part to make Bread For All happen once again.