Winter Nights Report, October 2017


Every year religious organizations in Contra Costa County band together to provide shelter and warm meals to homeless families and senior citizens. They are our guests. This year St. Anselm’s is partnering with the 7th Day Adventist Church, Antioch; the Christian Science Church, Pleasant Hill; the Neighborhood Church, Walnut Creek; and the Walnut Creek United Methodist Church.  Our guests live at St. Anselm’s for two weeks in October.  St. Anselm’s provides meals the first week and our partners  provide meals the second week.

Eva Woo set up St. Anselm’s portion of this year’s program, just as she has in past years. She coordinated with Winter Nights central staff, recruited and instructed St. Anselm’s volunteers, and set the schedule of activities.  She also cooked some of the meals. 

Anne Brown monitored day-to-day activities to ensure things ran smoothly as possible and figured out what to do when they didn’t.   Anne also wrote e-mails to St Anselm’s participants, telling them about the events that took place.   The e-mails tell the human story of this remarkable endeavor with grace, warmth, and hope.  In fact, I’ve been so taken with them that I’ve saved them so you can see them below, unedited.  They make me proud of the parishioners who served our Winter Nights guests this year and the many years that have gone before.

Day 1 – Winter Nights Launch
Hi All,

You already know from Eva that we’ve started with two families, single moms with 1 son each. This afternoon we’re expecting 4 more families, bringing the count to 15! Both moms are very nice. The older boy is 4 and already has his favorite toy – a fire engine with a siren. Luckily the siren has an on/off switch! He was loving it, but we adults weren’t. The younger one is just a year old, very bright and friendly, good at blowing kisses, and already knows some words.

One of the moms is 2nd generation Winter Nights. Her mom and 4 siblings were with us 2 years ago. She wasn’t with us, because she was out on her own, working. Since then, she has fallen on hard times and was glad when her mom suggested Winter Nights.

Our teams yesterday were very efficient. Mike Hollinger, Greg Rodolari, Doug Merrill, Al Swimmer (who came to do something else and got roped in to help), Eva, Fr.John, and I helped to unload the truck, which brought all the supplies in the morning.

Then in the afternoon, our set-up team arrived – the two Rinkenberger-Zhang boys, Dale and Allen, along with members of their Scout troop, their Scout master, and their dad, J.P.. They washed off the high chairs that had been in storage all summer, set up 6 tents, in what seemed no time flat, put pillow cases on pillows, set out bedding, moved tables and chairs around, and did all that needed to be done. In the midst of all that, they had time to connect with the two little guests. The 1-year old blew kisses as they left.

On top of all that, they weren’t even able to stay for dinner. Eva had gotten pizzas, mouth-watering chicken pot pies, and a huge salad. One of the Zhang boys had an important homework project, so they went home, their only reward being the blown kisses and the knowledge that they had taken a chunk of their day to help fellow human beings in need. The rest of us feasted, after Fr. John gave thanks to God for all of us, for WN, and for the food. I think we all felt blessed.

John McGraw was scheduled to spend the night, but wasn’t able to be there. His heartbeat is still not completely steadied, and he had doctor’s appointments in the next couple of days. He is hoping to be here by Weds. Please keep holding him in your prayers.

At 6 am, our breakfast team went into action – Mike Hollinger and Sally Roberts, Barb Thornton, and I. I say “6 am”, because that’s when we’re scheduled to be there. However, Mike and Sally always manage to get there first, no matter how hard I try to beat them. They’ve already got bagels and muffins and cereal and milk and orange juice, and waffles all set out – the incredible cornucopia of breakfast treats that Eva buys every year. Besides breakfast goodies, Eva buys snacks to welcome the guests back in the afternoon, and a variety of lunch meats for making their bag lunches.

Thank you so much, all who volunteered on this first day, who did set-up and gave a warm welcome. The guests arrive, not knowing what to expect and, I imagine, often feeling some trepidation. I’m so glad to be part of such a welcoming, open community. I can see our guests relax and soon feel at ease.

Much love,


Day 2 – From Chaos to Community
Hi All,

Wow! We went from 2 families, 4 people, on Monday to 6 families, 16 beings, in our Jackson Hall yesterday. Sally Fischer came early to greet, along with me. Then, suddenly, it seemed like everyone else arrived all at once – the new families, our dinner crew, WN staff. One family was too large to fit into any of the tents, so Bill Shaw, the WN manager, started taking one of the tents down to put up a bigger one. That meant taking down and moving another tent. Bill, along with the two guys who came to tutor and to help with job applications, pitched in, and also 3 of the mothers (Wonder Women all!). Sally and I moved around trying to meet the new families and to greet Monday’s two.

Then, all the pitching and moving and set-up ended and calm prevailed. The kids found games and toys and each other. Sally was great, helping with games, holding babies while the moms were busy, greeting folk.

Dinner was provided by Tamra Brown, a friend of Eva’s, who works at a women’s law firm that specializes in family law. Two of the attorneys were there, Cristelle Conanan and Alice Cheng, along with another executive, Gina Mickas. Three of their children came also. The dinner was delicious – Chinese-style pulled pork on buns, roast chicken, mac and cheese, salad and cole slaw, with snickerdoodles and cupcakes to top it off. I can tell you right now, if ever I need a family law attorney, I’ll be heading right over to their firm! They clearly have competence in many areas.

The three daughters, one a sophomore in high school, one in 8th grade, and the other in 5th, were reluctant at first to leave the kitchen and go to meet the guests. By the end of dinner, Kara, the sophomore, was playing with the middle and grade school boys. She had to leave before the others, in order to do her homework. We could hear the boys saying, “Will you be here tomorrow?”

The other two girls, Natalie and Rachael, took over from there and were let go with reluctance when it was their turn to leave. I am so impressed with all these young people, including the Zhang boys yesterday. Stepping out of your comfort zone and engaging with “the other” takes courage. Postponing homework involves sacrifice of time, possibly sleep, possibly tv or texting or phone time with friends. Thank you all of you. I’m sure you made this difficult time of transition from homelessness to shelter easier for those WN children.

While Bill was holding an information meeting to acquaint our guests with the rules and expectations and benefits, Doug Merrill arrived to check the air conditioning and to ask them all if they liked the temperature. I didn’t. It felt cold. However, our guests were happy with it. I was grateful to Doug for showing up to check it out with people – more of the “you matter” message.

By the end of the evening various parents and kids were interacting with each other and a sense of community prevailed.

This am – our breakfast team went into action once again. I got there at 6, which is our scheduled time. As usual, already there were Michael Hollinger, Sally Roberts, and Barb Thornton. Luckily so. All the families were up and ready to eat. My early teammates had already put a lot of the food out. We decided, with such a big group, we’d better all be there by 5:45. Are you impressed? Don’t we early risers all deserve a bit of applause and gratitude? Someone who definitely deserves applause is Barb, who brought homemade banana bread. One of the guests said, “This is my favorite! Please make it again!!” I echo that. It was delicious.

John McGraw, who has been our faithful overnighter for the past several years, has been having health problems. He was hoping still to come, but was postponing until after his doctor’s appointments, scheduled for today. Last night he phoned to say that all the residents from the Yountville Veteran’s Home, where he lives, were being evacuated because of the fires. He still hopes to come, but will have to wait until it’s safe to drive, of course.

A big thanks to all of yesterday’s volunteers and also our ongoing team,


Day 3
Hi All,

Another red-letter food team day! Peggy Matson was there with her Girl Scout troop, a bevy of future beauties, CEO’s, professionals, and smart/loving moms. The girls had decorated the tables with sunflowers and pumpkins. They drew on some of the pumpkins, inspiring some of our kids to do so also. They put a sign on every table, saying “What is your favorite animal?”, along with a couple of other comments and questions. On the wall they hung a sign, saying “Happy Halloween”. I loved that they had those creative ideas about connecting with the kids there and messaging, “You are important enough for us to decorate for you!”

Dinner was awesome – barbecued ribs, baked potatoes, Caesar salad, and ice cream sundaes. The mom who had begged Barb Thornton to bring her homemade banana bread again, jumped for joy when I said we were having ice cream sundaes. Easy for her to rejoice – she’s beautiful, young, and skinny! When Peggy heard that I wouldn’t be there for dinner, because I had a meeting to go to, she offered to save me some. She must have detected the longing and gloom in my voice, so I got to feast on the ribs later.

Unfortunately, I created some stress for Peggy and the team, because I hadn’t been clear about the dinner time. They had planned for 5:30, with the girls leaving to go home at 6:30. Until Tuesday, I had thought dinner was at 6, but was told 6:30, so the kids have time to do homework and meet with tutors. Anyway, I failed to pass the word along, so they had to delay on the ribs and potatoes. We did manage to change the time till 6 for last night, but it meant the girls had to leave right after dinner, which was too bad. So – future dinner teams, the meal is to be served at 6:30.

Marian Mulkey was the greeter last night. Watching her, as well as Sally on Tuesday, I felt great admiration. Being a greeter isn’t as easy as it sounds. The families come back, most of them all at once in the van. They come in, want to go to their tents or the bathroom. They are talking to each other. The kids run over to the snacks and the toys. It’s not easy to connect. It requires a period of standing around with nothing to do. Marian, like Sally, managed to reach out, to hold babies, to connect with the kids, and to create an atmosphere of warmth and welcome.

John McGraw arrived last night from Yountville, escaping the fire area. We, on the breakfast team, were very glad to see him, glad he is safe, glad he is well enough to be here, and to be part of our team. Welcome to you, John!

With love and gratitude,


Day 4

HI All,

As the week progresses, so do the comfort levels of the families.   They are talking and connecting across family lines, especially the moms of the two toddlers in high chairs having meals together and connecting.    A couple of them have also have gotten comfortable enough to tease me about forgetting or mispronouncing names.   They’ll see me and say, “What’s my name?”

The largest family,, the one with a mom and 4 kids is back after being absent a couple of nights.   The mom has a job in Tracy, which is a long commute.   Her kids are the oldest, boys 12, 9, and 6, as well as a girl 3.   The mom said she is really looking forward just to relaxing for the weekend.

Marian was our greeter again last night, keeping her antenna up, helping, connecting, greeting when and where needed.

Last night’s dinner was scrumptious.   It was sort of jazzed-up comfort food.   Joni Pearce brought a casserole of cut-up chicken, potatoes, onions, baked in a delicious sauce with cheese on top.    Abby Pearce brought a cauliflower casserole.   I don’t ordinarily think of cauliflower as comfort food, but this was delicious – sour cream, white cheese, bacon bits.   Dharmini brought a salad, that at first glance was ordinary – lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumber.   Dig a little deeper, though, and there were small tomatoes and dried cranberries.   Vula brought a huge tray of cookies – chocolate chip, white chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin.   I helped myself to the white chocolate chip, which looked to be the biggest.   After eating it, I headed back to get another, and almost all the cookies were gone!   Remembering who was the guest here, I restrained myself.

Both Joni and Abby had had unexpected things come up, so they couldn’t stay for dinner.   Dharmini and Vula did.  I was at the same table with them and one of the moms.   Vula drew her out about her job which starts on Tuesday, and her family, Vula sharing that she is the youngest of 8, when the mom said she was the youngest.   Dharmini and I chimed in.   This is what I love so much about St. Anselm’s, how friendly and caring we are.

Our breakfast crew was at it again at 5:45 this morning.   For the first time in living memory I got there first – pulling into the parking lot 30 sec. before Michael and Sally – not that we’re all competitive or anything!   Barbara arrived with another banana bread she’d baked.   There was joy and delight from many of our guests.   I unlocked the door to Classroom 2, put John’s gift quilt where he couldn’t miss it, and we sent him in to get it.   He was a bit overwhelmed, as it began to dawn on him what it is.

I’ll be gone tomorrow and a lot of Sunday, so you won’t be getting updates until probably Monday.

Much love and gratitude,


The Remaining Days

Dear All,

First of all, let me apologize to those of you who were on the Saturday dinner and Sunday teams a week ago. I am so sorry that it’s taken me more than a week to thank and acknowledge you!! Usually the second week that our guests are with us means a lighter load for St. Anselm’s, because another church takes over. However, St. Matthew’s Lutheran, who has done it for several years, decided to house the families in their parish hall in March. We had 4 different churches, who hadn’t done it before, doing dinner, but not breakfast. We were still doing breakfast and also needing to be available at dinner time in case they had questions.

Our guests moved out today, so I can pick up with you where I left off. Where I left off was with the Sat. night dinner, Chinese food prepared by Eva and her family. It’s always one of the highlights of the week, yummy for the guests and fun for parish folk who are given the opportunity to learn to make wontons. Sad to say, I had something else on and couldn’t be there, but heard from the families that it was delicious. Besides Eva’s family, her mom, sister and sister’s family, and a couple of friends, John McGraw, Michael Hollinger, and Sally Roberts showed up to help with dinner. Apparently, Eva’s mother took John under her wing and gave him a private wonton-making lesson. By the end, he was quite skilled and was dubbed John Wonton McGraw – or Wonton John.

On Sunday Ina Merrill brought sandwiches for the families at lunchtime, a generous act, given that she had to juggle that and church. A couple of the moms mentioned to me that they had really appreciated having those sandwiches prepared for them.

Sara and Al Swimmer, Sara and Al’s niece, and Sara Nelson provided dinner. Sara and Al’s niece brought the main course, 2 huge pans filled with meat loaf. She also made the dessert, pumpkin cheesecake. She came with her husband and their 23 month-old, who then got to play with the WN children. The Swimmers had talked to their niece about Winter Nights, and she wanted to contribute. She was so impressed with the families and the program that she wants to bring it to Marin. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have a church, so it won’t be so easy.

I had another dinner engagement, so arrived to say “hi” after dinner. I got to take some meat loaf and cheesecake home and can vouch for both being delicious. However, I missed a lot of the fun and other food. Sara N. brought a baguette and two kinds of salad, one fruit and the other mixed greens, which, according to Sara S., were flavor-enhanced with all kinds of goodies. Sara and Al brought mashed potatoes and peas, perfect with meatloaf.

Sara S. had the moms help her redo the table flower arrangements that were starting to look droopy. They added water and some greenery from the garden. According Sara, they seemed to enjoy themselves, saying at the end, “Wow, that was easy!” I’m so sorry to have missed that !! By the time I got there, all that was left to do was clean-up.

Monday morning would ordinarily have been the last morning for the breakfast team, Michael Hollinger and Sally Roberts, Barbara Thornton, John McGraw and me. However, as I said, the second week churches didn’t take over breakfast duties, so we soldiered on. Michael forbade Sally to continue, because she had to go to work every day and was tired. Barb needed to be caring for her husband, so it was John, Michael, and me.

We were due there at 5:45 every weekday morning to make the coffee, set out the cereal, milk, orange juice, frozen waffles, bagels, etc, unload the dishwasher, and greet the families. No matter how much on time or a few minutes early John and I were, Michael (and Sally the first week) was already there, with most of the work done. I’m very competitive, so it pissed me off. (I’m an Aries, so I can’t help myself.) Finally, on Friday, I asked Michael when exactly he was getting there. How was he able to beat me there every morning? It turns out that he was purposely getting there at 5:30, not 5:45!

Wait – there’s more. Michael and Sally left for a well-deserved vacation in Oregon on Sunday. John McGraw had to leave early to go back to Yountville, so Eva offered to arise early and help. On purpose, I told her to get there 15 min. later than I. I arrived, all smug, at Michael’s usual time, 5:30, only to find Eva already there. Not only already there, but also busily and cheerfully (you know Eva) cooking breakfast sandwiches of eggs and cheese and heating up some home-made quiche in the oven. Grrr! The families were delighted, of course. Me too, once I had helped myself to a yummy piece of quiche. I am wondering if God is trying to teach me something. I can’t imagine what, though.

Silliness aside, I want to give a special acknowledgement and thanks to our 2nd week breakfast team – Michael Hollinger, John McGraw, and me. We not only showed up for the first week, but continued on in the second week, all of us feeling quite tired by the end of it. Some of you may be saying, “What’s the big deal? People get up early for work 52 weeks a year, not 2!” True – however, Michael is retired, and as I think I may have mentioned, was arriving at 5:30 am, and therefore, doing most of the work. John had heart surgery only about 10 days ago, was tiring very easily, and was also showing up every night for the dinner shift. I am a quite elderly Aries, needing my sleep, and also doing double shifts. During all this, Michael and John were very kind and supportive, so thank you and – – Yay, Team!!

Yay, indeed, to all our teams!