Story by Yolanda Reynolds
Photos by Mary J. Andrade
September 27, 1989
“I was hungry and you gave to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; I was naked and you covered me… Amen, I say to you as long as you did it for one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it for me…” The Holy Bible, Matthew, Chap 25, Verse 35, 36, 40.
Every Saturday afternoon at Roosevelt Park you will find a small group of people unload cars and trucks of tables and food, seemingly preparing for an afternoon picnic.
Rain or shine, Esther Chavez, her husband, Paul and a number of like minded friends serve a hearty meal for the homeless and very poor.
Esther and Paul have been preparing and serving food for the homeless and destitute every Saturday afternoon for four years. They and other friends cook most of the food at home in restaurant size cookware and bring the food steaming hot for the early afternoon meal. They have at times prepared food for up to 400 at one serving. That was when they served food at St. James Park in downtown San Jose.
Often, one hears that Silicon Valley people, especially those employed in the industry, are selfish and have no social consciousness. Contrary to that profile, are Paul, who is an electrical engineer, a graduate of San Jose City College and San Jose state and his wife, Esther, who is a librarian at a large Silicon Valley firm.
Paul and Esther are both native Californians. Both of them spent their youth working in the fields with their families. Esther mentioned that while growing up her family had so little money that their family meals were prepared from the discarded vegetables and fruits available.
It was evident Saturday afternoon that the Chavez’s and he other volunteers, Charles Petrovich, Enrique Olguin and Joey Adair were experienced in the serving of the a transported meal. In just a fez minutes the portable serving tables were set up. The steaming food was placed on the tables, as were the eating utensils and the paper serving plates. While the homeless “guests” were waiting for the meal to be served, some of the volunteers unloaded donated clothing and packaged food for distribution. One little girl, clinging to he mother’s hand, wanted a doll. Esther hurried to her car and returned with a nearly perfect rag doll. The little girl reached for and clutched the doll as she left the park.
There was a beautiful calmness and an atmosphere of love within the group at the park that afternoon. One has the impression that it’s that way every Saturday afternoon.
Indeed, there was expressed a spirit of mutual concern. Missing two of the helpers, several of the people who come for the meal inquired as to their absence.
When asked about the feeling of community among the group, Esther explained that many of the people come every Saturday, but that as time went on and their individual situations changed or improved their “guests” would move on.
For many of the homeless and very poor a lifestyle change from degrading poverty requires great courage and determination. They are hounded by the fear in many of us, the police, the youth and many times their fellow transients. Esther said that the mealtimes were changed from Saturday evenings to Saturday afternoon because in the early evenings young toughs would come around just to abuse the people who had come for a free meal.
Esther’s dream is to, one day be allowed to use the kitchen facilities at the Roosevelt Park Community Center. Using the facility will provide shelter and protection from the weather during their mealtime.
Though there are donations of food and clothing some essentials are difficult to come by, such as, properly fitting shoes or for the women, sanitary napkins.
Paul introduced to the reporter, a man who had been struggling with a drinking problem. He was a man probably in his mid-forties, very neatly dressed, in a red plaid shirt and blue jeans. He was feeling very proud that he had been away from alcohol for a number of weeks and currently looking for work. Opportunities for work were not pouring in, but he had not yet become discouraged. Paul offered him encouragement because the man’s technical training was useful and needed.
Another man, Ivan Greenlaw asked to be introduced to the reporter. He was concerned that the paper publicizes the locations where free meals are available to the homeless. He said that meals were available on Sunday 1;00 p.m.., Monday and Thursday 4:30 p.m. at Loaves and Fishes at South Fifth Street. Tuesday and Wednesday at 4:15 p.m. meals are served at Martha’s Kitchen at 311 Willow Street. At Cecile White Center, 370 N. Montgomery, lunch is served every day and dinner is served every day, except on Wednesday, and at Roosevelt Park Saturday afternoons at 2:00 p.m. At least one free meal a day is available somewhere in town. The problem is the ability to travel to these different locations without money for bus transportation and the not infrequent problem of very poor health from malnutrition in some cases exacerbated by substance abuse problems of either drugs or alcohol or both.
Mr. Greenlaw explained that the people standing in line were his “friends.” He too lives in the street. He prefers that to staying at a shelter schedules. He said he also didn’t eat at the breadlines because he was able to provide himself with the essentials he wanted by collecting aluminum cans late into the night.
Ivan is 80 years old, a man with sparkling, clear, blue eyes. His vigor and alert mind hide his age. He had overcome a drinking problem and now devotes his energies to helping those less fortunate than himself. Ivan is a retired bartender and divorced. The small pension he could receive, he sends to the youngest of 13 children, a son, to help him with college expenses.
It was impressive how gracious and considerate the “guests” were, not only to the hosts but their fellow guests. The Chavez’s said that such an atmosphere of family or neighborhood was not always so. When they first began serving free meals, some of the homeless threw food at the hosts, cursed, trashed the area and so on, but as trust built up, such behavior no longer occurs.
The food served is appealing and quite tasty. Esther plans a balanced meal. She has made arrangements with several fine restaurants to pick up left over vegetables on Friday evenings. Her husband picks up day old bread from a Safeway store, the Evangelic Christian Fellowship donates money for the warm food that Esther and some friends prepare at home just before the Saturday meal.
Esther, Paul and their group receive some assistance from others in providing the free meals.. Esther and Paul have also developed close ties with other Social Service Agencies especially the Salvation Army. For the Chavez’s, the greatest disappointment throughout the years is a feeling that established churches and their parishioners lack interest and direct involvement in addressing the basic needs of such a large and growing population of very, very poor. She feels that meeting this need will require more help to alleviate the problems of the homeless segment on the community that increasingly includes children.
Inquires or donation of time, money, clothing can be made by leaving a message for Esther or Paul at the Evangelic Christian Fellowship (408) 279-2133