Every Wednesday morning the indoor hall at the South Bay Community Center in Los Osos turns into a busy bee hive filled with color, laughter and good vibes. More than 20 volunteers from the non-profit People Helping People are buzzing around eagerly while setting up tables for boxes filled with food items. What looks at first glance like a wild hustle and bustle quickly emerges as a well-organized structure where everyone knows their place and their task.
Meanwhile, visitors are gathering at the back entrance where they are greeted with coffee and cookies. With the morning sun in their faces, people sit in chairs or lean casually against the railing while chitchatting with each other about their lives or the newest gossip from around town. The swarming from the inside does not seem to reach outside where the atmosphere is calm and serene – a rather rare sight at food distributions where people usually arrive early and wait in a straight line.
The reason for this comes thanks to a clever idea from the volunteer group. Instead of serving on a first-come, first-served basis, recipients receive a random number on a little piece of paper that marks their place in line. This takes away the rush and minimizes the stress. It does not matter if someone arrives half an hour or five minutes before the distribution starts, everyone’s chances are equal.
One of the people waiting to receive help is Tommy who says he has been coming off and on for the past two years. Born in Texas, he moved to SLO County in 1986 to work for the California Conservation Corp. At the moment he goes to college to advance to a career in criminal justice. He also assists an old co-worker and friend – an electrical engineer who became blind after an injury. Besides taking him to the bank or to doctor appointments, he also picks up food for the two of them that helps them get by. Both of them are veterans and receive support from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
As 9:30 hits, the crowd becomes restless and all of a sudden everything speeds up. People sign in on a sheet of paper and then walk through the aisles to receive their share. “We always try to have at least one protein item like eggs, fish or meat. People usually take everything we offer them, except for the homeless who only take what they can use without having to cook,” explains Irv, one of the volunteers, who knows very well how quickly a person can find himself without a home in an area with high housing prices. He himself lives in an RV park with his wife.
As its own non-profit organization, People Helping People expands the supply of fresh produce and non-perishable products they receive from the Food Bank with other grocery items like pastries, cereals or even cat food. “This is my favorite part,” exclaims Tommy with a big grin on his face as he glances over the table with the desserts. Today is his lucky day. He drew number one and can now pick from a broad selection of sweets.
One by one, the boxes are emptied and their contents placed into people’s shopping bags. Enthusiasm and commitment shine through in the organization of this great event. While the food distribution moves along, some of the diligent volunteers are already disassembling empty tables. “It’s hard to describe in words what is going on here, so make sure you take enough photos”, notes a volunteer named Ron as he stores away the folded tables. Jim Quesenberry, the food distribution coordinator, adds happily, “And don’t forget to tell everyone how wonderful this place is!”