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 our guests live at St. Anselm’s for two weeks in September. St. Anselm’s provides meals the first week and our partners from other churches 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.
Ending day 1, Beginning Day 2
Winter Nights got off to a fast and slow start yesterday. Fast, because the truck-unloading team showed up promptly at 9 am – Trevor Holoch (substituting for his mom, Eva, who was stuck at home), Doug Merrill, Michael Hollinger, Greg Rodolari, and I. Slow, because the truck didn’t show up until 10! Trevor, who’s awesomely kind and polite, made coffee while the rest of us sat in the patio and schmoozed. Doug and Michael occasionally went looking for jobs to do around the church. I had fun talking to Greg Rodolari, who’s a friend of Eva’s and who comes every year to help with the truck unloading and often also with the afternoon tent set-up. Thank you, Greg! In the past we’ve been so busy with work that I haven’t gotten to know him, a kind and interesting man.
Then – fast again, unloading once the truck showed up. Fast continued in the afternoon when Lafayette Troop 243 came to help with the set-up – wonderful boys, polite, full of energy, enthusiasm, and willingness to help out. They had thought they’d be pitching tents, which is what they love doing. Instead – slow again – they had to wait until the Winter Nights team, led by Bill Shaw showed up. Meanwhile Eva, who was able to be there, put them to work washing off high chairs, helping Sheila Riedy cut up celery, cauliflower, and carrots and put them in plastic bags to serve later for hors-d’oeuvres, wash out the water jug from last year, and finally, cook some hard-boiled eggs for guests’ breakfast and lunch. All this boring stuff was done very cheerfully. Even when they disagreed about how big of a boil was needed for cooking the eggs, they managed to be mellow about it.
Then – fast – Bill Shaw got there and the tents went up.
Slow again – our one and only family showed up. Caroline Huddart was our greeter. Thank you, Caroline. We have another family joining us this evening, but in terms of guests and filling the tents, we are off to a slow start this year.
The family consists of a father, Kilton, who is a widower, and his 7 year-old son, Jolani. Kilton was injured on his job loading trucks. He needs hip replacement surgery. He is a wonderful dad. I can see the love in his eyes as he looks at Jolani and the way he smiles at him. He also sets limits. Jolani is a great kid – friendly, full of fun, energy, imagination. He spent quite a while with the tutors, being read to and picking out words that he knows. He’s in 2nd grade. I said Grace before dinner. Jolani followed up with his Grace, actually a very thoughtful one, which included being at Winter Nights. At dinner he did magic tricks. Obviously, with him around, slow turned to fast before the evening was over.
Our intrepid breakfast team is at it again – Michael Hollinger, Sally Roberts, Barbara Thornton, and me. We have a new member joining us this year, Rand Critton, a friend of Eva. He wasn’t able to be there today, however. Sleep-deprived at 6 am, we started slow. Soon some coffee and connection with Kilton and Jolani, who were all cheerful, saying they had slept really well, energized and woke us up.
I want to give special thanks to Fr. John. Despite the fact that he and Liz are flying off to France today, where he will do a wedding, he showed up and greeted the Winter Nights staff and guests in his inimitable connecting, “I-see-you” way. They were clearly pleased and felt seen.
Thanks to all of you who have helped so far.
Ending Day 2, Beginning Day 3
Our 2nd family joined us last night – a mom, Bertha, and her 4 year-old son, Onaji. Jelani was clearly pleased to have another kid there to play with, though Onaji didn’t do much play. He kind of wandered around, probably trying to get oriented to the new surroundings.
Abby Perry and her son, Liam, provided the dinner – a fabulous spread of fried chicken breasts, crusty with bread crumbs, mac and cheese, thick round corn bread pieces, vegetables and salad . Sheila Riedy came with dessert – homemade brownies. It was all totally delicious! The guests loved it, as did we. At our table, we were joking that we loved mac and cheese as children and still do, but don’t let ourselves eat it at home. A situation like this is a golden opportunity to indulge.
Liam was very sweet and helpful. He put frosting on the brownies for Sheila, helped Eva and me with set-up and helped his mom. All this was done with good cheer, despite the fact that he had a sore and swollen wrist, due to an injury in his tai kwan do class. Just before dinner was served, his dad came and picked him up.
Abby didn’t eat with us either. Her mother-in-law was visiting from out of town and had wanted to cook dinner for them. Obviously one doesn’t turn down that kind of offer from the mother-in-law! Abby stayed in the kitchen and cleaned up while the rest of us were enjoying all the delicious food she brought. I felt sad that she was missing out on conversations with our guests and staff, which is one of the pleasures of hosting. I also feel sad, because it was stressful for her in other ways. Eva had given her our guesstimate for numbers at dinner, based on the number of guests, the usual WN staff people and tutors, as well as St. Anselm’s volunteers. The numbers kept shifting before our very eyes. Staff people would come, but then some would leave. Abby had gotten a certain number of chicken breasts, based on the estimate and had added some more, just in case. The last straw was when a staff member arrived with her 3 children. As it turned out, we had two extra chicken breasts. This was a learning for me about trying to give realistic estimates, but also being clear that numbers can shift and not to worry if there’s not quite enough. We volunteers can hold off on filling our plates until all the others are fed.
The other thing I realized we didn’t provide clarity about was the time for the dinner. In the past, dinner has often been served at 6:30, which seems very late, given that the families arrive back to Jackson Hall at 5 pm. My understanding is that the time has been set that late so that there is time for the tutors to help the kids with their homework. In years like this, with only one school-age kid, a second-grader, dinner can definitely be earlier. However, often some senior staff people are there, checking on things, providing instruction and orientation for the newer, on-site staff, and they aren’t staying for dinner, but need time to talk. Complicated! Again, flexibility is needed about when dinner is served. Again, also, we didn’t make that clear to Abby, who thought we’d be serving dinner as soon as she made the salad, cooked the veggies, and heated up the chicken, etc. Instead, her food had to sit in the warmer, risking drying out. Another stress factor for her, which made me sad, given how thoughtful she’s been and what a wonderful meal she provided.
I hope those of you who still have meals to fix are paying attention. I will do my best, as will Eva, to provide realistic numbers and times. As you can tell from what I’ve said, however, these can change at the last minute.
On to breakfast! Families again reported a good night’s sleep. Michael made scrambled eggs, bacon, and fried spam. Guests, staff, and volunteers were all very excited, and it all disappeared fast! Thank you, Michael!! I’ve always been pleased with our dinners, because I think good food gives the message, “You matter”. Michael has extended that message to cover breakfast also.
Thanks to all of you who have helped so far and to those of you whose turns are yet to come.
Have you been wondering why you didn’t hear from me yesterday? Bad luck story! I had my e-mail all written and was just waiting to get a couple of e-mail addresses from Eva. I sent it to drafts. After I saw Eva at dinner and went home, I got it out of drafts. I realized that I had misspelled the name of one of her friends, so went to erase one letter of her name and redo – and horror of horrors the whole e-mail disappeared! I found it in trash, but then the same thing happened, and I couldn’t find it anywhere. When my computer-savvy granddaughter, Taylor, who lives with me, got home, I asked for help. Bad news, she told me. Because I got out of my email before clicking on “Undo”, it was gone forever. Because I now have two days to report about, it may get long, so I’ll do my best to keep it short and sweet.
On Wednesday night, Eva’s two friends, Angela and Cheryl, brought the dinner. They come very year, which is wonderful. They served 3 kinds of pasta. Spaghetti is the only one I can tell you the name of, whioh is the one I ate, perfectly al dente. We had a choice of beef or turkey meatballs. I chose beef. You can tell I’m pretty traditional and conservative when it comes to pasta dinners. We had a delicious salad, two kinds of bread, garlic and buttered (I took both). Dessert was a chocolate sheet cake with chocolate frosting or oatmeal cookies or shortbread cookies. Guess what I picked. Our guests loved all of it, going back for seconds. A couple of parents said that spaghetti is their kid’s favorite meal. I think having what seems like comfort food and what people are used to must be very reassuring.
Eva is so amazing – enrolling friends that have nothing to do with St. Anselm’s to come and help – Angela and Cheryl and Angela’s husband who came after dinner to help clean up. The first day, Greg Rodolari, Scout troop 243, Thuy all helped with unloading and set-up. Rand Chritton volunteered to be on the breakfast team, but wasn’t needed. All friends of hers. Thank you, Eva!
On Wednesday another family joined us – a couple with a darling 19 month-old daughter, Lilly. She was running around. At one point, she ran up to me and hugged me around my legs. My heart melted. I’m hers forever! Her mom, Rena, is pregnant with another girl, due the beginning of November. Her dad, Randy, had just had 4 teeth extracted that day, so he was not a happy camper, lots of pain.
Marian Mulkey was our greeter. I love watching her interact with the parents and kids. She always listens intently, looks so interested in what is being said, and is very connecting. Caroline Huddart also stopped in, not as a greeter, but as our Senior Warden, to see how things are going – above and beyond the call of duty!
Jelani was to have started 2nd grade by now, but his dad is still doing paperwork, because he’s switching districts. He has daily time with the tutors, though. His dad told me that Jelani’s mom had taken him to his first day of school in kindergarten and the next day died of a heart attack. He’s an amazing kid. He seems quite normal and okay. He asked to be the one to say grace the other night. Besides thanking God for Winter Nights, he thanked God for taking care of his mom now.
On to last night – Thursday – the Swimmer family provided dinner – Sara and Al, Al’s sister, Susan, Al’s niece, Jen, and her son, Ace (looked to be about 4). Jen and Ace came all the way from San Rafael and brought fantastic meatloaf. Besides that we had mashed potatoes, peas, and salad. For dessert, Sara brought ice cream sandwiches. We all stuffed ourselves so much on the main meal that I wonder how we had room for dessert, but we did.
Our 4 year-old guest, Onaji, and Ace connected. They sat together at dinner. To the horror of his mom, Onaji picked up his mashed potatoes and smooshed them on his face. For a moment it looked like Ace was contemplating the same thing. He stuck his fingers in the potatoes, but then changed his mind.
Jen was awesome! She did all the clean-up, giving Sara, Al, Susan, and me space to interact with our guests and Ace. Sara was awesome also, with her injured foot. She looked pretty tired by the end of the evening, but was a trooper the whole time.
I have more to say, especially about our breakfast group, but think I’ll save that for another e-mail. In closing I would like to say that my little Norwich terrier, Smarti, would love to have eaten the homework. She is very unhappy with Winter Nights. I interrupt her sleep to go off at the crack of dawn to church, taking her out in the yard to pee way too early. Then, I go back to church late afternoon, so she misses her time running around the park with her doggie friends. I’m not there at her dinner time, so Taylor gives her dinner. Wednesday night she refused to eat her dinner until I got home. Last night she hid in my bedroom closet, and Taylor ended up taking her dinner up to her. So please, give her lots of love and attention on Blessing of the Animals Sunday.
Thanks again to all you wonderful volunteers!
Ending Day 4, beginning Day 5
We had another family join us last night – a mom, Jennifer, boy, Tyler, 7, and daughter, Ashlinn, 5 – soon to be 6. Her birthday is in about 10 days. They arrived just at dinner time. Tyler, Ashlinn, and Jelani found each other immediately and sat together at dinner. It was so sweet! I could see that Jelani was helping them to feel immediately at home.
Dinner was fun and delicious. Amy Orear and JD were the dinner team, along with two of Eva’s friends, Susan Chritton and Elizabeth. It turns out that Elizabeth’s mom, Maryanne, is one of our new members from Rossmoor. She came because she loved Fr. John’s sermons, which she was hearing online. (Thank you, Doug!) But I digress. Dinner was do-it-yourself ground beef or shrimp tacos, ditto with enchiladas, or melted cheese tortillas. All the trimmings were there – guacamole, sour cream, salsa, lettuce, beans, rice, you name it! There was also a corn salad. So yummy and such fun! Dessert was an awesome white cake with whipped cream frosting and sliced strawberries and kiwis on top, allowing us not to feel guilty, because, after all, fruit is good for us!
Andy was coaching the Acalanes football team. so he couldn’t get there until dinner was nearly over. Hallie, who has a grueling schedule – AP classes during the week, on the running team, so she was running yesterday in all that heat, baby sitting jobs, and on and on, was taking a well-deserved nap and didn’t wake up in time for dinner, but in time to come and clean up, poor girl. After dinner, while cleaning up, J.D., Amy, and I got talking about his being a Boy Scout and going tor Eagle Scout. Randy, the little toddler’s dad, was just bringing his dishes to us and started listening. He then shared that he’d been a Boy Scout from the time he was just a little boy and made it to Eagle Scout just before turning 18. He lit up talking about it and was quite animated, which was wonderful. Up until then he’s been quite quiet and seemed depressed. Thank you Amy and JD for that and all the effort that went into preparing the dinner.
Eva decided late yesterday to make breakfast for our guests this morning She told me not to worry about coming. “Take the morning off. I’m just doing pancakes and sausage. I’ll go late”, she said, “7:30”. At first I thought, “Oh, ok”, but then I began to worry. There would be the dishwasher to unload, coffee to make, dishes and forks to put out. How would she do all that and still cook? So – I decided to show up and help. I got there at 7:30 and found the kitchen full of people and Eva cooking the sausage and pancakes. Stupid me! You’d think by now I’d know Eva! She had gone online to some family volunteer website and lo and behold found two moms and their two daughters, who looked to be about 10. After breakfast one of the young girls started playing games with Jelani, Tyler, Ashlinn, and Onaji. It was so sweet. One of the moms is a physical therapist and does some pro bono work. We asked if she would talk to Kilton, who has the bad hip. She said that he’s never been properly evaluated and hopefully, can help. He was hugely grateful and hopeful. Thanks to Eva, we have some more helpful people who now know about Winter Nights. The girl, who was playing games with the kids, was asking her mom if they could come back next Saturday!
Speaking of enrolling folk who don’t know about Winter Nights – Sheila Riedy was talking to her neighbor about the program. The neighbor was so moved that she made a bunch of chocolate chip cookies. They lasted only that one evening. We had them for dessert, and what was left the guests put in their lunches.