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Compassion Recipe

On Wednesday, August 15, I went to the St. Vincent de Paul Village as a volunteer to serve dinner to its residents. Serving dinner at "St. Vinny's" has become something of a tradition in San Diego for volunteer groups and charitably minded individuals -- so much so that there are often two or more groups every night of the week rotating in as volunteers.

Before I set foot on the property I get a callback from St. Vincent's public information officer, telling me in a wary voice that St. Vincent's has a history of bad press from the Reader. I assure him I simply want to observe what is going on and have no agenda. Upon arrival, I am met by Mark Tsuchiya, another PR coordinator who seems concerned about my presence. I am again reminded of the Reader's past relationship with St. Vincent's and given another warning not to photograph or interview anyone who doesn't wish to talk.

Tonight there are two groups. The biggest group is from Montgomery High School's Good Samaritan Club. The other group is Claritas, a volunteer organization for professionals. Dinner is served at 4:30 every night, and most of the volunteers for this evening's dinner show up between 4:00 and 4:15. As volunteers, we park in the underground lot off 16th Street and are given visitor badges after checking in at the village lobby desk. Next we are led to the ground-floor kitchen (there is another upstairs). Each of us is handed a plastic apron, and food handlers are given plastic gloves. Most of the volunteers seem to know what to do. Those who don't are given instructions. No one is standing around.

Jeanette Carballo teaches at Montgomery High School and serves as advisor for the Good Samaritan Club, which evolved from Friday Night Live, a national high school club devoted to offering teens alternatives to drinking and drug use. She brings a group of student volunteers to St. Vincent's "once a week, every week, 52 weeks a year. Usually we have 11 or 12 volunteers, but we have 15 today." Some of her volunteers are as young as ten, as she also brings students from a mentoring program at the middle school and elementary schools nearby. All of her volunteers seem happy and joke with each other and the diners as they serve the food.

Inside the kitchen, food- service manager Ricardo Buzon is in charge. At only five feet, he commands respect, projecting an aura of authority and experience. "I've been here for almost 12 years now. Timing is very important. You can fix dinner in an hour, but it depends on the menu. There are some meals that we have to prepare in two or three hours. Tonight we have the savory baked chicken, and it's marinated for an hour -- that's the least that we can marinate it for. It takes an hour to cook it, and the overall preparation is about three hours. I enjoy this. If you're getting paid for a job and you enjoy it, it's nice.

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"We have about 11 cooks who are employed in both kitchens. We also have clients [village residents] who work one hour each day. There's some groups in here that are scheduled for today too. Clients start lining up about 4:30, and we secure the line after 6:30. There are some stragglers who try to come in late, but they know what time it is. For some people who are late from work we will fix 'late plates.' The volunteers do good work and help us a lot. Most of the volunteers really pitch in. They don't come and waste time -- they work hard."

Buzon feeds a large crowd every single day. "Out of 850 residents -- adults and kids, we average from 430 to 460 a meal. Some of them will go out to McDonald's or something like that. It also depends on the climate. If it rains, it seems like 80 to 90 percent of them eat in. When the weather is inviting like today, they go out first and maybe they'll come back for a meal."

As the doors open at 4:30, the line is busy, but no one is disruptive or pushy. Besides the roasted chicken, diners are served corn and peas (mixed), rice, oriental beef with noodles, Jell-O, salad, and fruit cups. The most popular item by far is dessert -- so popular that different treats are rotated in as others disappear. Several layer cakes and a large cherry pie were soon gone and replaced by large chocolate-chip cookies, cinnamon rolls, and muffins. Volunteers fill the compartments of Styrofoam plates, taking directions from the diners. The disabled go directly to their tables, and volunteers take their orders and bring them their food. A teenage girl brings an order in: "Three children, one adult. Everything except the noodles." To the kitchen crew there are no residents. Here they are called "guests."

LaToya Osborne, 17, is a senior at Lincoln High School. The tallest worker in the kitchen, Osborne has an irrepressible smile. Although she works with the volunteers, slicing layer cake and handing out servings, she is employed here. "I'm actually here with the Higher Youth. They assign you to a job and you get paid for it, just for the summer. But I will be working here when I get back to school. It'll be my afternoon job from 3:00 to 8:00. I plan to go to Arizona and play basketball.

"I've been here since 9:00 this morning. I've already served lunch, and it's hectic. People try to get over [the counter] for the milk. Only kids 12 and under can get milk, unless you're disabled or pregnant. But they're fine. I like it because, other than this, I normally don't come downtown. I get to meet new people, and the chefs around here are real funny."

Rebecca Merlin, 14, piles rice onto plates and passes them on. "I'm here with the Good Samaritans group, but I go to Chula Vista High School. I've come here every Wednesday for three weeks now. It's fun. We usually have a much smaller group. I don't really know why I do this, but I like doing it."

Rebecca's older sister, Christine Slattery, 16, is in her fourth year as a volunteer at St. Vincent's. Slattery's reasons for volunteering seem simple but gratifying. "I just like to see the smiles on their faces when you're helping them. They say thank you and...it just makes your heart grow." Slattery also volunteers with the SHARE program and Border Crossings, an organization that sets up designated drivers for students returning from "partying" in Tijuana.

On the other side of the counter in the dining room, guests are seated at picnic-style tables on wheels in a dimly lit room that doubles as a basketball court. The backboards are a permanent reminder of the room's multiple usage. Many of the guests are friends and group together, while others sit alone, a rare opportunity for solitude. As I walk by two men eating together, one sneers, "Take my picture and I'll shoot ya!" When I turn to assure him I won't, he smiles suddenly and insists he was just joking.

Jerry Osborne, an older black man, sits alone, looking neater and cleaner than the other guests. More muscular than most men his age, he wears a Marine camouflage cap and sunglasses while he eats, meticulously salting his meat and buttering his bread. He seems to savor every moment of his meal. "I've been here almost a year. I was in the Sea Bees, in a construction battalion. I moved here in 1959. I'm originally from Birmingham, Alabama. I tried my hand at being an entrepreneur, and after three businesses went in the toilet, I ended up totally penniless and homeless."

Osborne seems intimidating until you talk to him. A divorced man with grown children scattered around the country, he is cheerful and articulate but turns serious when discussing his situation. "The facilities here are great. They have computer access, various classes to enhance your skills. If you don't have a high school diploma, they have classes to guide you toward your certificate. It's a lifesaver. If it wasn't for them, I'd be in the street. The first three nights I slept in my car, and on the fourth day, through the Lutheran Crisis Center, I ended up being admitted here. They've got an incredible program because they find out who the people are that sincerely want to try and work their way out of here. That's the whole emphasis behind the program, to get you job-ready so you can become independent instead of being dependent. If you really aspire to do something with your life and you're serious about it, they've got programs. There's a 15-week class, CTC -- I think it means 'Commitment to Change,' or something like that. It's to change your attitude about what's probably some of the reasons that got you here in the first place -- anger management, that sort of thing. After you complete that, they do an assessment on you. They give you a battery of tests to find out your aptitudes and skills -- it's administered by people from UCSD. They'll evaluate you and give you a guideline to work from to try to get you into jobs that you'd probably be good at.

"I was told I'd be a good electrician, but I have no desire to do that. I promised the Lord that if He let me get out of the military and not get electrocuted, I'd never work with this stuff ever again. You see, I was severely shocked a couple of times. It was very painful. Right now, I'm looking for a job in law enforcement. I just turned 60 last month. I've been working out in a makeshift weight room they've got here, and I passed every single thing for the San Diego Police Department -- they put out a notice that they needed police officers, and there was no age limit. I passed the physical agility test, background check, everything, the whole shot. There were people in their 20s and 30s who didn't make it. So, right now, that's pending, and I've also passed the exam for the Sheriff's Department."

The saddest, yet most assuring thing about the guests at St. Vincent's is its families. Raylene Montgomery, 29, has been at St. Vincent's for three months, sharing quarters with her husband and four children. Montgomery's boys seem to whirl around their table with limitless energy while she calmly feeds a toddler that she is baby-sitting for another resident. Montgomery's husband, Paul, is kept late from dinner by his anger-management class. Originally from Los Angeles, they've lived in San Diego for four years. "My husband was stabbed in L.A., and we came down here. I've enjoyed staying here, and they treat us very well. Right now I'm taking a chemical-dependency class because I've abused drugs in the past. After I graduate from the class, they'll help me with job training."

Every kid's tray is loaded, and a separate tray is filled with large slices of chocolate cake for dessert -- an enticement for her brood to clean their plates.

Paul finally shows up. "I like it here at St. Vincent's. The good part is we're not on the street. I was on the street for a while, but my kids were here. We're starting to become a family again. I was a victim of a violent crime. It was a difficult recovery -- they stabbed me through my lungs and into the spleen. I relapsed and relapsed, and now that I've gotten over that part, I got out of the rehabilitation home, and I'm using the benefits here at St. Vincent's. I'm getting my life back in order here."

The security measures taken to protect residents are commendable. The staff shows concern not only for the safety of residents and diners but also for their reputation and privacy.

Kimberla Weaver, a swing-shift supervisor, holds a clipboard with the name of each resident printed on it and checks for those who show up for dinner. She stands at the door near the line and notices me for the first time. She asks me to identify myself and repeats the request that I not interview or photograph anyone who doesn't want to be in my story. Just to be safe, she talks to security on her cell phone; for the next seven minutes it seems as if no one has ever heard that I was going to be there. She is told that it's all right, and she relaxes. "I just make sure that there are no problems in the dining area. No fights or arguments." When asked if there ever are fights in the dining hall, she assures me it is rare. "If that happened, I would call security. I wouldn't show off my karate expertise!"

It is surprising to see the level of trust that the residents have with each other. Trays full of food are left alone while the eater gets up for a condiment or to refill a drink. The atmosphere is relaxed, and the residents seem to be enjoying this time of their day. Most of them bus their own trays, though volunteers roam the edge of the room looking for trays and utensils left behind. They are taken to the kitchen, where two men are busy rinsing and sterilizing them.

At 6:00, diners are still trickling in. The later crowd includes some young teenagers who are annoying their parents, ignoring loud warnings to stop their horseplay. No one seems to be in a hurry, except the kitchen staff. A lone resident worker stands facing the wall at the far counter, enjoying his dinner. He eats slowly, breathing in relaxation, just a few steps away from the frenzy.

Marie French and Eric Woodside, two older-than-teenage volunteers, work at a software marketing company in Sorrento Valley and are volunteers with Claritas. They are frequent volunteers at St. Vincent's.

Woodside: "This brings you back to reality."

French: "It makes me grateful for what I have."

By 6:30, the line is secured and the serving stops. As the kitchen is cleaned, workers head into the dining room, talking, laughing, wiping, sweeping, and mopping around the few stragglers left. At 7:00 the hall is cleared of diners and the final cleanup is in place. Soon everyone is gone, but laughter still lingers in the kitchen.

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47th and 805 was my City Council district when I served in 1965

On Wednesday, August 15, I went to the St. Vincent de Paul Village as a volunteer to serve dinner to its residents. Serving dinner at "St. Vinny's" has become something of a tradition in San Diego for volunteer groups and charitably minded individuals -- so much so that there are often two or more groups every night of the week rotating in as volunteers.

Before I set foot on the property I get a callback from St. Vincent's public information officer, telling me in a wary voice that St. Vincent's has a history of bad press from the Reader. I assure him I simply want to observe what is going on and have no agenda. Upon arrival, I am met by Mark Tsuchiya, another PR coordinator who seems concerned about my presence. I am again reminded of the Reader's past relationship with St. Vincent's and given another warning not to photograph or interview anyone who doesn't wish to talk.

Tonight there are two groups. The biggest group is from Montgomery High School's Good Samaritan Club. The other group is Claritas, a volunteer organization for professionals. Dinner is served at 4:30 every night, and most of the volunteers for this evening's dinner show up between 4:00 and 4:15. As volunteers, we park in the underground lot off 16th Street and are given visitor badges after checking in at the village lobby desk. Next we are led to the ground-floor kitchen (there is another upstairs). Each of us is handed a plastic apron, and food handlers are given plastic gloves. Most of the volunteers seem to know what to do. Those who don't are given instructions. No one is standing around.

Jeanette Carballo teaches at Montgomery High School and serves as advisor for the Good Samaritan Club, which evolved from Friday Night Live, a national high school club devoted to offering teens alternatives to drinking and drug use. She brings a group of student volunteers to St. Vincent's "once a week, every week, 52 weeks a year. Usually we have 11 or 12 volunteers, but we have 15 today." Some of her volunteers are as young as ten, as she also brings students from a mentoring program at the middle school and elementary schools nearby. All of her volunteers seem happy and joke with each other and the diners as they serve the food.

Inside the kitchen, food- service manager Ricardo Buzon is in charge. At only five feet, he commands respect, projecting an aura of authority and experience. "I've been here for almost 12 years now. Timing is very important. You can fix dinner in an hour, but it depends on the menu. There are some meals that we have to prepare in two or three hours. Tonight we have the savory baked chicken, and it's marinated for an hour -- that's the least that we can marinate it for. It takes an hour to cook it, and the overall preparation is about three hours. I enjoy this. If you're getting paid for a job and you enjoy it, it's nice.

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"We have about 11 cooks who are employed in both kitchens. We also have clients [village residents] who work one hour each day. There's some groups in here that are scheduled for today too. Clients start lining up about 4:30, and we secure the line after 6:30. There are some stragglers who try to come in late, but they know what time it is. For some people who are late from work we will fix 'late plates.' The volunteers do good work and help us a lot. Most of the volunteers really pitch in. They don't come and waste time -- they work hard."

Buzon feeds a large crowd every single day. "Out of 850 residents -- adults and kids, we average from 430 to 460 a meal. Some of them will go out to McDonald's or something like that. It also depends on the climate. If it rains, it seems like 80 to 90 percent of them eat in. When the weather is inviting like today, they go out first and maybe they'll come back for a meal."

As the doors open at 4:30, the line is busy, but no one is disruptive or pushy. Besides the roasted chicken, diners are served corn and peas (mixed), rice, oriental beef with noodles, Jell-O, salad, and fruit cups. The most popular item by far is dessert -- so popular that different treats are rotated in as others disappear. Several layer cakes and a large cherry pie were soon gone and replaced by large chocolate-chip cookies, cinnamon rolls, and muffins. Volunteers fill the compartments of Styrofoam plates, taking directions from the diners. The disabled go directly to their tables, and volunteers take their orders and bring them their food. A teenage girl brings an order in: "Three children, one adult. Everything except the noodles." To the kitchen crew there are no residents. Here they are called "guests."

LaToya Osborne, 17, is a senior at Lincoln High School. The tallest worker in the kitchen, Osborne has an irrepressible smile. Although she works with the volunteers, slicing layer cake and handing out servings, she is employed here. "I'm actually here with the Higher Youth. They assign you to a job and you get paid for it, just for the summer. But I will be working here when I get back to school. It'll be my afternoon job from 3:00 to 8:00. I plan to go to Arizona and play basketball.

"I've been here since 9:00 this morning. I've already served lunch, and it's hectic. People try to get over [the counter] for the milk. Only kids 12 and under can get milk, unless you're disabled or pregnant. But they're fine. I like it because, other than this, I normally don't come downtown. I get to meet new people, and the chefs around here are real funny."

Rebecca Merlin, 14, piles rice onto plates and passes them on. "I'm here with the Good Samaritans group, but I go to Chula Vista High School. I've come here every Wednesday for three weeks now. It's fun. We usually have a much smaller group. I don't really know why I do this, but I like doing it."

Rebecca's older sister, Christine Slattery, 16, is in her fourth year as a volunteer at St. Vincent's. Slattery's reasons for volunteering seem simple but gratifying. "I just like to see the smiles on their faces when you're helping them. They say thank you and...it just makes your heart grow." Slattery also volunteers with the SHARE program and Border Crossings, an organization that sets up designated drivers for students returning from "partying" in Tijuana.

On the other side of the counter in the dining room, guests are seated at picnic-style tables on wheels in a dimly lit room that doubles as a basketball court. The backboards are a permanent reminder of the room's multiple usage. Many of the guests are friends and group together, while others sit alone, a rare opportunity for solitude. As I walk by two men eating together, one sneers, "Take my picture and I'll shoot ya!" When I turn to assure him I won't, he smiles suddenly and insists he was just joking.

Jerry Osborne, an older black man, sits alone, looking neater and cleaner than the other guests. More muscular than most men his age, he wears a Marine camouflage cap and sunglasses while he eats, meticulously salting his meat and buttering his bread. He seems to savor every moment of his meal. "I've been here almost a year. I was in the Sea Bees, in a construction battalion. I moved here in 1959. I'm originally from Birmingham, Alabama. I tried my hand at being an entrepreneur, and after three businesses went in the toilet, I ended up totally penniless and homeless."

Osborne seems intimidating until you talk to him. A divorced man with grown children scattered around the country, he is cheerful and articulate but turns serious when discussing his situation. "The facilities here are great. They have computer access, various classes to enhance your skills. If you don't have a high school diploma, they have classes to guide you toward your certificate. It's a lifesaver. If it wasn't for them, I'd be in the street. The first three nights I slept in my car, and on the fourth day, through the Lutheran Crisis Center, I ended up being admitted here. They've got an incredible program because they find out who the people are that sincerely want to try and work their way out of here. That's the whole emphasis behind the program, to get you job-ready so you can become independent instead of being dependent. If you really aspire to do something with your life and you're serious about it, they've got programs. There's a 15-week class, CTC -- I think it means 'Commitment to Change,' or something like that. It's to change your attitude about what's probably some of the reasons that got you here in the first place -- anger management, that sort of thing. After you complete that, they do an assessment on you. They give you a battery of tests to find out your aptitudes and skills -- it's administered by people from UCSD. They'll evaluate you and give you a guideline to work from to try to get you into jobs that you'd probably be good at.

"I was told I'd be a good electrician, but I have no desire to do that. I promised the Lord that if He let me get out of the military and not get electrocuted, I'd never work with this stuff ever again. You see, I was severely shocked a couple of times. It was very painful. Right now, I'm looking for a job in law enforcement. I just turned 60 last month. I've been working out in a makeshift weight room they've got here, and I passed every single thing for the San Diego Police Department -- they put out a notice that they needed police officers, and there was no age limit. I passed the physical agility test, background check, everything, the whole shot. There were people in their 20s and 30s who didn't make it. So, right now, that's pending, and I've also passed the exam for the Sheriff's Department."

The saddest, yet most assuring thing about the guests at St. Vincent's is its families. Raylene Montgomery, 29, has been at St. Vincent's for three months, sharing quarters with her husband and four children. Montgomery's boys seem to whirl around their table with limitless energy while she calmly feeds a toddler that she is baby-sitting for another resident. Montgomery's husband, Paul, is kept late from dinner by his anger-management class. Originally from Los Angeles, they've lived in San Diego for four years. "My husband was stabbed in L.A., and we came down here. I've enjoyed staying here, and they treat us very well. Right now I'm taking a chemical-dependency class because I've abused drugs in the past. After I graduate from the class, they'll help me with job training."

Every kid's tray is loaded, and a separate tray is filled with large slices of chocolate cake for dessert -- an enticement for her brood to clean their plates.

Paul finally shows up. "I like it here at St. Vincent's. The good part is we're not on the street. I was on the street for a while, but my kids were here. We're starting to become a family again. I was a victim of a violent crime. It was a difficult recovery -- they stabbed me through my lungs and into the spleen. I relapsed and relapsed, and now that I've gotten over that part, I got out of the rehabilitation home, and I'm using the benefits here at St. Vincent's. I'm getting my life back in order here."

The security measures taken to protect residents are commendable. The staff shows concern not only for the safety of residents and diners but also for their reputation and privacy.

Kimberla Weaver, a swing-shift supervisor, holds a clipboard with the name of each resident printed on it and checks for those who show up for dinner. She stands at the door near the line and notices me for the first time. She asks me to identify myself and repeats the request that I not interview or photograph anyone who doesn't want to be in my story. Just to be safe, she talks to security on her cell phone; for the next seven minutes it seems as if no one has ever heard that I was going to be there. She is told that it's all right, and she relaxes. "I just make sure that there are no problems in the dining area. No fights or arguments." When asked if there ever are fights in the dining hall, she assures me it is rare. "If that happened, I would call security. I wouldn't show off my karate expertise!"

It is surprising to see the level of trust that the residents have with each other. Trays full of food are left alone while the eater gets up for a condiment or to refill a drink. The atmosphere is relaxed, and the residents seem to be enjoying this time of their day. Most of them bus their own trays, though volunteers roam the edge of the room looking for trays and utensils left behind. They are taken to the kitchen, where two men are busy rinsing and sterilizing them.

At 6:00, diners are still trickling in. The later crowd includes some young teenagers who are annoying their parents, ignoring loud warnings to stop their horseplay. No one seems to be in a hurry, except the kitchen staff. A lone resident worker stands facing the wall at the far counter, enjoying his dinner. He eats slowly, breathing in relaxation, just a few steps away from the frenzy.

Marie French and Eric Woodside, two older-than-teenage volunteers, work at a software marketing company in Sorrento Valley and are volunteers with Claritas. They are frequent volunteers at St. Vincent's.

Woodside: "This brings you back to reality."

French: "It makes me grateful for what I have."

By 6:30, the line is secured and the serving stops. As the kitchen is cleaned, workers head into the dining room, talking, laughing, wiping, sweeping, and mopping around the few stragglers left. At 7:00 the hall is cleared of diners and the final cleanup is in place. Soon everyone is gone, but laughter still lingers in the kitchen.

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