Wednesday, November 30, 2011

2011-11-30 "Local volunteers help keep hungry fed" by Rich Freedman from "Vallejo Times-Herald" newspaper
Barbara Reyes has little, if any, connection to Vallejo. Yet one Sunday early evening a month, she travels from Walnut Creek and joins a handful of other volunteers to serve the homeless and hungry as part of the Sparrow Project at First Baptist Church.
"It's not that I'm rolling in dough financially. I'm taking money out of retirement to make mortgage payments," Reyes said. "I just want to give some of my time back. It's very rewarding."
When it comes to assisting the needy, volunteers are what keeps the wheels churning, be it the Sparrow Project, the Christian Help Center, Salvation Army or Florence Douglas Senior Center -- all of which are recipients of this year's Times-Herald Community Christmas Card.
"Without volunteers the place would not run as good as it does," said Pastor Mike Brown, overseeing the Sparrow Project.
On this Sunday, Northgate Christian Fellowship in Benicia was responsible for the food.
Most of the volunteers during the week and three other Sundays at First Baptist are from churches, said Brown, although others in the community also put in time.
Some young people help serve food from the fourth grade through high school and beyond, Brown said. Some people serve for community service credit. And, every so often, someone who had relied on free meals to survive gets their life straightened out and comes back to help serve.
"We do get a handful of volunteers that come in from the streets that this ministry has changed," Brown said.
As for Sundays, the 5 p.m. supper rarely sees fewer than 80 and has welcomed as many as 170, said Terry Abreu, in charge this past week of whipping up spaghetti.
"If you run out of what you were serving, you just keep looking around the pantry to see what else they got," Abreu said. "You can always find more something to put together and be creative."
Usually, Northgate's Hale and Colleen Burckin prepare jumbalaya for the masses. Unavailable this Sunday, Abreu happily took the reins.
"I do it for the love of God's people," said Abreu, a retired high school teacher. "I'm just someone lending my God-given talent to someone who doesn't have the ability or the resources. Some of these people have lost their job, some lost their home, some of them just lost their way.
"It makes you feel good that you made it easier on them to get through the day."
John Hurst has volunteered monthly for five years, only missing a few Sundays.
It's about serving God, he said, "and I feel like I'm making a difference, I guess. It's always on my calendar."
Hurst brings his daughter, Emily, 13, along to help.
"I think it's important for her and for me," he said. "It gives us perspective. Sometimes we feel put out by whatever, like we can't have a new XBox or we want a new iPhone instead of a cell phone. And then you see people out there hurting, who don't have their next meal.."
"I get to make food and then you get to see people get excited about eating," said Emily Hurst. "It gives you a good outlook on life. It makes me feel better about helping."
Layne Manion-Dodge has served for nearly three years, recalling the first time being "a little anxious. How are you going to be received? Are they gong to be angry or receptive?"
Even after losing her job a few years ago, Manion-Dodge said serving the homeless keeps her focused.
"It can be much worse," she said.
Gracie's barbecue has donated more than 6,000 pounds of chicken for the meals, confirmed restaurant owner Ken Ingersoll.
"There are people in the community against the church giving away food," Ingersoll said. "But churches have been doing this for thousands of years. Even if you don't like the people who show up to eat, I don't think starving them out is the answer."
The tough part, all interviewed agreed, is when kids come in with a parent or two for a free meal.
"It's heartbreaking," Manion-Dodge said. "These kids don't deserve to be here."

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