Giving out grocery bags of food is just one way the nonprofit helps those in need
By JUDITH PRIEVE | Bay Area News Group
EL SOBRANTE — Dozens of people stood in line on a recent crisp, fall morning for free food that St. Vincent de Paul of Contra Costa County gives away out outside St. Callistus Catholic Church. Many were immigrants who spoke little English, but that mattered not to volunteer Arlesa Miles, who immediately welcomed them with a warm smile, a hug or fist bump, and set about filling their bags with exactly what they needed.
“We’ve got waffles here, sweet potatoes, pizza bites or you want some chips?” Miles asked as a woman wheeled a grocery cart past her in line, pointing to food items one by one, which she would then place in their bag.
“Where are you grandbabies?” she said to another older woman slowly walking past her table. “They’d like these (oatmeal energy balls); they have blueberries in the middle.”
Miles, once hungry herself, has made it her mission to get to know the people who come to St. Vincent de Paul for help — including several living in tents atop the steep hill behind the church — on its twice-weekly food pantry giveaways. The New York-raised volunteer may have little in common with the South Asians, Chinese, Latinos and others in line, but somehow she has found common ground learning what foods they like, what they would never eat and sharing with them in a way to make them feel special. The language difference is not a barrier for Mills.
“I know what they need,” the vivacious volunteer said. “Sometimes they can say things and I can say it back to them, but not exactly the way they said it. But we laugh about it because at least I’m trying to understand them.”
Carol Brazil, president of St. Callistus’ St. Vincent de Paul Conference who works side by side with her, says Miles has a rapport with people, and even in the early days of COVID-19, she would greet them with bump fists and elbows and “you could tell she was smiling through her mask,” she said.
“She (Miles) is friendly, and she related to everybody,” Brazil said. “She would shoo me aways and say, ‘I got this. They don’t want chili beans because they don’t eat meat!’ ”
But it isn’t just about food. Sometimes Miles, a U.S. Army veteran, offers advice and resources to fellow veterans in line and encourages them as she can. Sometimes it’s just making a connection with someone who is in a vulnerable place.
That easy rapport, however, was not always the case. For years, Miles has suffered with anxiety, depression and PTSD, all of which spiraled downward after a series of challenging events.
Miles was a mechanic in the Army before being injured in a training accident that would require painful hip surgery and months in a body cast. Later divorced, she moved her children to the Bay Area and worked as a teaching assistant for two decades with the West Contra Costa School District. But when her daughter was 15, the teen got into a horrific car accident, the stress of which weighed heavily on Miles’ mental health.
Since then, Miles said she suffered a couple of mental breakdowns and eventually became agoraphobic, unable to leave her home.
But the Veterans Administration case manager assigned to her had an idea to help.
“My case manager told me that I needed to get out of the house and stop being a hermit, and she walked me down to St. Callistus (a few blocks away),” Miles said, adding she didn’t want to take any free food because she had always worked before.
Still, finding it difficult to deal with people and new situations, for weeks Miles would visit the church and simply sit outside on the bench in front of a Ten Commandments monument, in tears, unable to bring herself to join the line. Volunteers with St. Vincent de Paul would come out to her and try to make her feel comfortable.
“She was really wracked with PTSD. She was in a kind of vulnerable place when she started coming to St. Vincent de Paul for help,” said Barbara Hunt, development director for St. Vincent de Paul of Contra Costa County.
But it was not long before Miles would go from a tough place needing help to one where she was giving help in the food line and more, Hunt said.
Through the East Bay Times’ Share the Spirit program, St. Vincent de Paul hopes to raise funds to help its neediest families purchase food and other basic necessities The organization will use the funds to buy $75 grocery gift cards, which it will include in food bags it plans to give away over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays from its Pittsburg Family Resource Center.
Since 1958, through a variety of programs, the non-profit has been a safety net, providing basic human services of food, shelter, hot showers, rental and utility assistance, medical and dental care for the uninsured, transitional employment and training for those with barriers, auto assistance, clothing, furniture and referral to other services.
St. Vincent’s thrift store helps fund many of the nonprofit’s functions, including job training and information sessions, free emergency food packages and a free lunch offered weekdays. St. Vincent also gives out 7,000 coats each year and offers a daytime shelter, with hot meals and showers, for homeless clients in the Winter Nights Shelter program.
Although based in Pittsburg, its outreach extends beyond the city, with 700 volunteers who staff 29 branches that operate mostly at Catholic church sites. Its volunteers distribute more than $1.8 million of direct financial support (predominantly rental assistance, utility and water assistance), and $2.3 million of in-kind assistance (mostly food and medical care) to struggling families annually.
The branches, like St. Callistus-run food pantries, usually operate twice a week and issue vouchers that can be redeemed for clothes and furniture at one of St. Vincent de Paul’s three thrift stores.
For her part, Miles, now co-vice president of the St. Callistus’ St. Vincent De Paul Society volunteers, said she’s loving every minute of her volunteer work and plans to continue helping those in need as long as she is able.
“She is an example of how St. Vincent can make changes in people’s lives,” said Claudia Ramirez, St. Vincent de Paul executive director. “Basically, we helped her with food initially; we also helped her get in touch with some services that the veterans offer. And she is now a volunteer. It’s like we gave her a purpose.”
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