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.
"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."