Catholic San Francisco


(Photo by Dennis Callahan/Catholic San Francisco)

St. Vincent de Paul volunteers from San Mateo County parishes make sandwiches to serve to guests at the society’s homeless help center in South San Francisco. From left, Amparo Prieto, Charlene Trueb, Joe Lambert.

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Retirees form backbone of SVdP outreach in South San Francisco
June 19th, 2013
By Valerie Schmalz

At 25 years on the job, Joe Lambert is not only one of the most senior volunteers in terms of years of service; he is also the one who runs things in a pinch.

“He’s like my right-hand man, so when I go away on vacation, Joe takes over,” said Lisa Collins, the Dublin, Ireland-born director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of San Mateo homeless help center in South San Francisco. “He is taking over for our chef today. When he comes in, he makes the soup, he makes the coffee.”

A retired engineer for the airlines, Lambert, 86, normally volunteers every Thursday. This day, a Monday, Lambert was filling in for another chef. He was making the soups of the day, turkey noodle and split pea, in two huge pots on the stove. “We make all the soup from scratch,” Collins said.

The average age of the volunteers at the homeless help center is 80, estimated Collins. “The core all started around 20 years ago,” said Collins who has been in the job for 15 years as North County Homeless Director and Youth Coordinator.

Parish-based ministry
St. Vincent de Paul is a parish-based ministry and many groups come from northern San Mateo County parishes. Most of the volunteers this day had originally started volunteering with their parish, then decided to spend more time at the center.

Cafe St. Vincent, as the North County Homeless Conference is known, serves about 140 people a day – the count was up to 180 in the worst of the recession a couple of years ago – as well as serving as the central coordinating juncture for basic services provided by San Mateo County including shower vouchers and shelter vouchers for the night, mental health and job services. The center distributes bus passes and money for gas when someone starts a new job, Collins said.

Each day, Monday through Friday, has its own regular crew to make 300 sandwiches, soup, fill lunch bags, talk to clients, wash pots and pans, and generally help. Saturdays is usually youth volunteers, young adults and parents with teens, said Collins, who is also youth coordinator for the conference.

“They do all the cooking, make all the sandwiches,” said Collins of about 70 adult volunteers. “There’s a group that does one-on-one with the guests.”

Not all the guests are homeless. “They just don’t have enough money,” said Lambert, a widower, of the center’s guests who come by for a bag lunch, a bowl of soup, sometimes an extra peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a cup of coffee, juice or milk Monday through Saturday at Cafe St. Vincent.

The volunteers make four sandwiches each day without meat or condiments for the one or two who do not want meat or mustard or mayonnaise, they said.

“It’s great. The homeless have nowhere to go, to eat,” said James, a Cafe St. Vincent guest standing in line for the cafe, where a lunch counter lined with brown bag lunches was ready for volunteers to distribute.

Sense of community
“There’s a great sense of community here,” said Collins of the volunteers and guests. “They worry about our volunteers more than about themselves,” she said of the guests. “I think because our volunteers are seniors, our guests are more respectful.”

Some guests are longtime daily visitors; others come for a month or more and then get back on their feet, Collins said.

Fridays, the soup is usually vegetable curry and during Lent the Friday sandwiches are tuna, Collins said. Each day before the cafe opens the volunteers gather for a prayer. On All Souls Day, guests and volunteers gather to pray for those who have died the previous year.

Evie Nazareth, parishioner at Our Lady of Mercy in Westlake, arrives at 7:30 a.m. and begins making sandwiches and chopping vegetables for soup, and ends the morning distributing bag lunches to Cafe St. Vincent’s guests. The retired registered nurse goes home at 12:15 p.m.

“I feel like I am helping the community and promoting service to God,” said Nazareth, who is also conference secretary.

Charlene Trueb, a St. Dunstan parishioner, was spreading mustard on bread and layering lunchmeat and cheese on bread with Amparo Prieto of St. Robert Parish. “It’s doing God’s work,” said Trueb, a retired Montgomery Ward retail sales associate, married mother of four adult children and six grandchildren. “We’re every Monday people,” said Trueb, who started helping at the kitchen in 2002.

Serving the working poor
Many of the guests are “working poor,” they said. “They just don’t have enough money,” said Lambert. “To pay rent and buy food,” added Trueb.

“A lot of times people will have a big party on the weekend and if they have leftovers they’ll bring it in,” said Trueb.

St. Robert hosted a luncheon and three trays of deli sandwiches were brought over, said Prieto, who is married with four children and 10 grandchildren. “Nothing goes to waste,” she said.

What inspires the volunteers to come each week?

“The need,” answered Prieto, who began serving once a month with St. Robert shortly after she retired from Pacific Bell 15 years ago. “But after a while, I wanted to come every week.”

Seniors and volunteering
Retirees form the core of volunteer programs across the U.S., offering important services especially to the elderly – some of whom are younger than the volunteers.

They deliver Meals on Wheels, visit the homebound to provide companionship and outreach, offer a reassuring daily phone call to elderly individuals who live alone, offer counseling on tax preparation and dealing with insurance companies, function as nursing home ombudsmen, give a friendly check to elderly people discharged from hospitals to make sure they’re doing all right, and provide other services.

Many volunteers in their later decades enjoy serving other seniors. Sue Jepson, 70, of Portland, Ore., serves people ranging from 62 to 90 as a volunteer in the Loaves and Fishes program at a local senior center. She likes helping others and “seeing people have a better day.”

Volunteering “gets me off the couch,” said Cindy Hamberg, 64, who recently started running an osteoporosis prevention program called Bone Builders at Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Winona, Minn. “What a powerful feeling volunteering is!”



From June 21, 2013 issue of Catholic San Francisco – Aging Well Section.


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