Ken and Mary Ann Eichler
Kenneth and Mary Ann Eichler, members at ACL congregation Abiding Love and regular volunteers at Bread For All, are moving out of state. They will be sorely missed at church and at ACL’s weekly food pantry.
Last summer, they escaped the brutal Texas heat for an extended stay in the state of Washington to visit their daughter. As they travelled to various locales in the Evergreen State, Mary Ann noticed beautiful vegetable gardens and lush fruit orchards. Kenneth noticed the same. While enjoying multiple days of gorgeous weather on the trip, Kenneth made a suggestion: “We oughta move up here.”
Mary Ann wasn’t so sure about the idea at first. But Ken persisted. Before long, Mary Ann wholeheartedly agreed with her husband of fifty-eight years.
Kenneth and Mary Ann grew up on farms of corn, cotton, and cattle in the nearby communities of Dime Box and Lincoln in Lee County, some sixty miles directly east of Austin. They met at country school. They fell in love and married soon after finishing high school. Like many other rural Central Texans, they moved to Austin to work and raise a family.
Kenneth and Mary Ann were happy to raise their family – son Michael and daughter Deanna – in Austin but they didn’t abandon their rural roots.
Both of their mothers kept gardens. “Those gardens helped keep us alive,” Mary Ann remembers. Mary Ann learned how to can vegetables while growing up on the farm. Ken’s mom had a large, productive and meticulously kept garden at their farmhouse near Dime Box.
To this day, Mary Ann still cans jellies, cabbage, okra, cucumbers, beets and any other vegetables she can get her hands on. Whether in Austin at the various places they’ve lived, or in Lincoln for a ten-year stretch, Kenneth and Mary Ann have always kept a garden.
Kenneth worked as a print pressman and retired in 1998. Mary Ann worked at the IRS complex in South Austin and retired in 2008. When Abiding Love established its food pantry in 2005, Ken was among the first volunteers who picked up supplies at the food bank and excess food at area grocery stores. When the Eichlers moved back to Austin from Lincoln in 2018, they were recruited by BFA Coordinator Barb Tiedt and joined the volunteer crew at the “new” food pantry that Abiding Love and ACL sponsored.
“We know there’s a need and we like to help,” Mary Ann says. “It’s what Christians are supposed to do – that’s what we’ve been taught.” Mary Ann is grateful for her mother, a faithful role model, who taught her about Jesus. “She taught us to be kind, helpful, and friendly. She was that way herself.”
Mary Ann is a quilter and in the past year has generously donated a number of quilts to BFA and Abiding Love’s food pantry, targeting unhoused neighbors. Her quilts also went to families at the other ministry that ACL supports, Mariposa Family Learning Center. Ken is a tireless servant and able fix-it man. Along with picking up food donations for BFA, he also pitched in with the building rehab effort at Mariposa FLC.
The Eichlers will deeply miss volunteering for ACL, especially at Bread For All. “What a wonderful group of people to work with,” Mary Ann says. “We’re like a family.”
Kenneth and Mary Ann plan to continue their volunteerism once they get settled into their new home just north and east from where the Columbia River bisects Vancouver, Washington and Portland, Oregon. They’ll join the church, Zion Lutheran, that their daughter attends in Camas, Washington. Mary Ann will continue to make quilts for Lutheran World Relief to assist refugees and those devastated by disasters. They’ve already identified a food pantry ministry where they hope to help out.
Kenneth and Mary Ann say that they’ll have an extra bedroom at their new place in Washington. They welcome any Texas friends who’ll need a break from the brutal summer heat. To boot, visitors will get a tour of Kenneth and Mary Ann’s new garden, sure to be chock-full of beautiful vegetables to be shared at their kitchen table and at a food pantry close by.
Rudy Weigelt – A BFA Original
Earlier this year, we lost one of our original Bread For All volunteers, Rudy Weigelt. He and his wife Fay were members of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church on East Oltorf in southeast Austin, BFA Food Pantry’s first home. At food distributions on Monday evenings, Rudy called out the numbers assigned to neighbors waiting to receive food. Upon hearing their assigned number, neighbors came up to the registration table to have their names entered into BFA’s computer system. Typically seated in a chair next to the computer registration table, Rudy accomplished his task with gusto in the noisy environment. His booming voice cut through the commotion and careened to the back wall of the church’s Fellowship Hall where Fay and other volunteers readied bags of food for neighbors.
As a pastor in the ACL network of congregations, I had the privilege of serving alongside Rudy and others at the food pantry for a number of years. After my appointment in 2018 as Director of Community Development for ACL, I served alongside Rudy at BFA on a weekly basis.
I loved Rudy’s stock greeting – “How you doin’, pastor?” – offered with firm handshake, a gleam in his eyes and one side of his mouth turned upward in a gentle grin.
Charles “Rudy” Weigelt was born in Giddings, Texas in 1938. He worked for Calcasieu Lumber Company for thirty-seven years and served his country as a US Army reservist. He and Fay were blessed with two children and a grandchild; they had eclipsed fifty-six years of marriage at the time of Rudy’s passing in March 2020.
Though his commanding voice echoed off the walls during food pantry distributions, Rudy also practiced the gift of humble hospitability with that same voice at Bread For All. Welcoming others was second nature for Rudy. In one-on-one encounters with neighbors at his perch near the registration table, his voice communicated equality, acceptance, and compassion. These qualities – squarely based upon Rudy’s faith in God as creator of us all – were in mature bloom in the last decade of his life.
At BFA, Rudy practiced what I call “egalitarianism” – the idea that all of us are equals and that no one, whether by birth or assumed status, is more or less deserving than the next person. When BFA was still at Prince of Peace, there came one rare Monday when Rudy was not present. A repeat neighbor that evening exhibited some defensiveness and mistrust as he interacted with others. I thought that I could disarm him a bit with some charm and humor. It completely backfired – my attempts at congeniality actually made things worse for this neighbor. He eventually went on his way with his groceries.
The next month, this same neighbor returned. I had my eye on him as he came in the door and went into the waiting area to look for a seat. Instead of going to an empty seat in the common area, he pulled up a chair right next to Rudy. The two of them spoke together as if they were old friends. Rudy had developed a sense of trust with this neighbor and there was an understanding of shared humanity between the two. I saw them smile and laugh as they visited. I was deeply impressed with Rudy’s ability to interact with this man, who was somehow stricken with difficulty, to create a sense of calm.
Rudy had these kind of conversations with dozens of BFA neighbors.
Branch Neutzler, Rudy’s brother-in-law, also joined in a conversation with Rudy about BFA. From Rudy’s invitation, Branch and his wife Delores decided to volunteer at Bread For All. In turn, Branch and Delores invited their grandson Garrett to volunteer. Sadly, Branch, a member of St. John’s/San Juan Lutheran, one of our ACL-network congregations, passed away two months before Rudy did.
For some five years, Rudy volunteered at BFA as head number caller. In the BFA file box, where distribution documents and records are kept, I named the file used for tracking numbers – pictured – “Rudy’s Number List.” To this day, we’ll have neighbors show up who share remembrances and good stories about Rudy. His legacy at BFA remains.
Thanks be to God for Rudy Weigelt, a BFA original.
Joe graduated from Austin’s Travis High School with the class of 1970 as the Vietnam War festered on the other side of the world. As luck would have it, he ended up with a high number in the draft lottery, and besides, that next fall he began studies in business administration at the University of Texas. He wouldn’t go to Southeast Asia to fight in the divisive and, ultimately, unwinnable war.
He married while at UT, but soon divorced. After dropping out of school, he landed a job at Bealls on South Congress Avenue. A few years later, he was recognized as the top salesman in the men’s clothing department. But an event on November 4, 1979 in the western part of Asia – Tehran, Iran – compelled him to enlist in the US Army.
“It was very simple for me. The Iranians captured our consulate in Tehran, and I thought we were going to war. The next day I showed up at Camp Mabry and said, ‘Sign me up.’” He was 28 years old.
Sent to Fort Sill in Oklahoma for training, Joe eventually learned he wouldn’t be going to Iran, but to Wiesbaden, West Germany. His battalion’s duty was to maintain and service a Lance missile system – a short-range nuclear weapon – aimed squarely east toward the Soviet empire. Joe loved his work. He and his battalion trained hard, running up to five miles a day in rain, shine, or snow. Even though he smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, he was in great shape. Joe says all of his army mates smoked – “Everyone was stressed out” – in the high adrenaline atmosphere of the base. The commissary-supplied French and German cigarettes, Joe also says, were better than Marlboros and Winstons.
During night exercises in the winter of 1988, Joe had to dismount from a tank to the ground. A snowdrift, unbeknown to him, concealed a wall at his intended landing area. His left knee hit first and fragmented upon the sturdy brick wall. It was the end of his military career. His honorable discharge included a small compensation component and lifetime health insurance coverage. Prior to his mishap, the US Army had recognized Joe seven times with medals of service and accomplishment.
Even so, Joe’s life as a civilian spiraled downward, and quickly. He drank too much. He was arrested, more than once. He landed in jail and was sent to prison – his record and person stained by the word “felon.” Two decades of darkness – alcoholism; a diagnosis of emphysema; and the loss of the only two family member who meant anything to him, his grandmother and mother – took their toll.
Joe’s father-to-be, a Pennsylvanian, came to Camp Swift, just outside of Bastrop, in the late 1940s. He met Joe’s mother-to-be, Thelma. They fell in love and married, and moved to Pennsylvania. Joe was born in 1950, but soon enough, the young couple’s honeymoon was over. Joe’s dad drank and physically abused Thelma. She left him for good when Joe was four – they moved back to Texas. Joe hardly ever saw his dad again, as he was raised in Austin by his mom and maternal grandmother.
When Joe was at Fulmore Middle School and Travis High School, he played clarinet and oboe in the band and served – each of those six years – on the student council. An Eagle Scout, he had the confidence and support of his teachers, which helped compensate for the absence of his father. He had high hopes.
During Joe’s two decades of darkness, he had trouble landing good work because of his felony conviction. The only jobs available to him – even though he was a US Army veteran – provided no stability: day labor, pizza delivery, construction clean up, and the like. For years, he lived in a run-down apartment complex in Southeast Austin.
About five years ago, he looked out the window of his apartment toward the parking lot of a nearby church. He saw a large truck trailer emblazoned with the words “Food and Hope to Central Texans” surrounded by images of oversized red strawberries, yellow peppers, and green pea pods. He saw people gathered around the truck. Leaving his apartment, he ventured over to the parking lot and heard the good news: Bread For All Food Pantry and the Central Texas Food Bank invited him to get in line and receive groceries and produce at no cost. He was invited to come by the Monday evening distribution of Bread For All, also at the same church.
“It was wonderful. I was, and still am, on such a tight budget. To this day, I don’t know what I’d do without Bread For All. It’s a means to help me make ends meet.”
Going through alcohol rehab and attending A.A. meetings helped Joe emerge from his dark decades. He also has learned to rely on the faith that his grandmother and mom passed onto him. He worships at St. Ignatius Catholic Church on Oltorf and S. Congress Avenue.
“For me, drinking was a spiritual malady. I had a hole where my faith should have been. As a result, I was powerless over alcohol.” He says now that his faith has given him the power he lacked and needed. He’s been reading Pastor Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Life. Joe says that he knows that God has put him here on earth for a reason.
His emphysema slows him down considerably, and he lost vision in his right eye toward the end of the past year – a VA doctor told him that his optic nerve had detached from his retina. Even so, he’s committed to doing his part at Bread For All. When he feels good, he plans to come early on Mondays and help set up tables at BFA.
“I’m happier now. I’m more calm. I’m more in control. I’m living smack dab in the middle of a miracle.”
Ask Bread For All volunteer Joel for a brief historical sketch of his seventy-plus years, and he’ll in turn ask if you’ve ever heard of the USS Liberty.
On the afternoon of June 8, 1967, he was aboard the ill-fated US Navy research ship as it cruised, on high alert, the Mediterranean Sea east toward the north coast of the Sinai Peninsula. Three days previous, Israel had surprise attacked Egyptian Air Force fields, the start of what would later be called the Six-Day War. The Liberty’s command, consequently, had strict orders to stay in international waters as it neared the conflict zone.
As Joel, a twenty-year-old logistics specialist, went underneath the ship’s deck shortly after 2:00 p.m. that afternoon to retrieve supplies, an alarm rang out communicating the message: Man your battle stations! Moments later, incoming jets fired missiles at the ship. Smoke and flames—from 55-gallon-drums of fuel stored on the deck, obliterated by jet rockets—engulfed the ship. Unignited napalm fuel soaked the back of Joel’s shirt as he emerged deck side in an initial attempt to reach his station. The napalm severely burned Joel’s back and he had no choice but to temporarily retreat for cover underdeck.
Thirty-four men on the USS Liberty died that day, and 171 suffered wounds and injuries. The smoking and pockmarked ship didn’t sink, and eventually harbored in Malta for repairs. While in Malta, Joel visited St. Paul’s Island, where the Apostle, according to its islanders’ interpretation of chapters 27 and 28 in the book of Acts, had shipwrecked. Joel was one of fifty remaining sailors—the Liberty originally had 296 men—that brought the ship home to the Virginia coast. In the ensuing years, Israel apologized for the attack and paid reparations to the surviving family members of those killed in the attack.
Joel was honorably discharged after the attack—from which shrapnel lodged in his right thumb—and was decorated with the Purple Heart. He enrolled at SW Texas State College (now Texas State University) the next fall. He met his future wife, Audrey, at the teachers’ college in San Marcos and they married in 1970.
He managed a Luby’s Cafeteria after graduating from college. The many hours—“I never got to see my wife”—taught him all he needed to know about the restaurant business. Joel stayed on the job for only four months. He went to work, thanks to the advice of his brother Gordon, for the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles and continued his military service as a US Army reservist. He and Audrey raised two children, as she taught at elementary schools in the Hays and Eanes school districts.
Joel retired from the state in 2003. He retired from the US Army as a Sergeant Major in September of 2006, after serving a number of years as a chaplain’s assistant. He logged more than forty years in US military service, and was recognized with the Eagle Award from the US Army Chief of Chaplains.
During his years of military service, Joel’s work tasks oftentimes related to food and food delivery. As a reservist, he worked on refrigerator ships that delivered food, and later helped deliver food to construction battalions. Food has been a love of Joel’s since he can remember. “My mom loved to cook, and I loved to eat.”
Joel and his brother were raised in the Christian faith at First English Lutheran Church, just north of the University of Texas campus. After Joel and Audrey married, they attended Holy Cross Lutheran and later took their children there. When the children moved away for college, Joel and Audrey joined Abiding Love Lutheran and Joel helped establish Abiding Love’s food pantry in January 2005. He had a Chevy Tahoe truck and went to the old Central Texas Food Bank location on South Congress Avenue to pick up food for the pantry. He’s closing in on fifteen years of continuous service, and now picks up food in a large-bed Toyota pick-up at the food bank’s new location on Metropolis Drive in southeast Austin.
When asked why he volunteered to pick up food for the pantry, he simply says, “There was a need, and I was available.” He then quotes the prophet Isaiah, and says with a gentle smile, “Here I am, Lord, send me.”
On Tuesday mornings, Joel picks up leftover bread and any other items from Bread For All and delivers them across I-35 to the Arbor Terrace Apartments, a low-rent housing facility for single adults. Every other Wednesday, he volunteers to drive fellow military vets for doctor appointments or surgeries at the Veterans’ Medical Center in Temple. On Fridays, he picks up surplus food from Whole Foods and brings it back to refrigerators and freezers at Abiding Love for distribution on Mondays.
Joel has never forgotten that he’s lucky to be alive. The details from the June 8, 1967 attack on the USS Liberty are still sharp in his mind and motivate him to help others. “It’s all about serving God and country.”
Thanks for your good service, Joel. May God continue to bless you and all of our food pantry volunteers with courage and compassion, those traits so needed to enter into service—and those traits, as if an unbroken circle, reinforced by it.
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.)
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.
“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.
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!
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.”
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.
Carol & Jane
“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.