Wil Rivera drifted in and out of homelessness for seven years. He would get a job and housing -- and then relapse into his drug of choice, meth.
Now, Wil is the director of the Loaves & Fishes wash house. It’s a job that rewards him with endless inspiration. And, he has been sober for more than a decade.
Wil credits his transformation to Loaves & Fishes. But his progress here came in fits and starts. Sometimes he would be expelled from the community for getting into fights with other guests.
“I used to fight a lot,” he said. “I did a lot of martial arts when I was younger and I was active in a lot of sports. I was a real good fighter and I had a lot of aggression. Garren [a director of Friendship park who retired in April, 2017 and worked at Loaves for 14 years] must have kicked me out the door a million times when I was a guest. There were times when my anger didn’t allow me to feel remorse for what I had done.”
But eventually, Loaves & Fishes changed Wil, who felt remorse for his behavior.
“I remember once when I was camped out by the river, hearing the voices of people camped around me heading to Loaves & Fishes,” he said. “I could hear the joy in their voices when they were talking about going to go get coffee and pastries and I just started thinking to myself if I had not gotten involved in that fight I could still go."
He began to grasp the staff’s unconditional acceptance and aspired to be as patient and kind as them.
“Watching the staff changed me,” he said. “You don’t have to be sober to see the devotion of the staff. I challenged the staff frequently, but they still treated me with love. Garren was one of those people. I had a million interactions with Garren in the past that were never that great and the fact that he was always the same made me want to strive to do things similar to the way that he did them.”
Wil desperately wanted to change and prayed to be rid of his addiction.
“I prayed and prayed to God,” he said. “I prayed and said either you take this addiction from me or I’m probably going to end up checking out of this world pretty soon or end up in prison.”
The miracle of being able to quit meth redefined his relationship with God.
“I just decided to try Him out in the sense of allowing Him to change my life, and so I asked Him for patience and tolerance and a way for me to better develop myself,” he said.
To keep busy and give meaning to his life, Wil volunteered in the wash house for a year. He learned how handle guests who behaved like he once did and how to help the mentally ill access the wash house. He learned how to care, and developed patience.
“Now, I don’t even get angry,” Wil said.
One time, a guest who was upset that he was restricted from registering to use the wash house because he had a coffee cup in his hand [coffee cups are prohibited outside of Friendship park], threw scalding hot coffee in Wil’s face. Wil remained cool and calmed down the guest even though he was seriously burned and had to call the police.
After volunteering in the wash house, he became a staff member in the dining room and eventually rose up the ranks to become the lead weekend kitchen supervisor. On Feb. 16, he was promoted to director of the wash house.
Wil enjoys the job, and strives to demonstrate the strength, compassion and forgiveness that Garren taught him.
“I could be having a bad night, but once I wake up and go to work in the morning, I know that I’m going to have a good day,” he said. “I love what I do. I help a lot of needy men take care of their needs.”
Wil said that his ultimate goal as director is to help the men who frequent Loaves & Fishes to clean up so that once they enter the world beyond North C Street, no one will recognize them as homeless.
While the men are moving through the wash room – composed of lockers, sinks, shower stalls and a clothing bank, he, his staff and volunteers try to elevate their mood with an occasional joke and ever-present compassion.
If a guest raises concern about a pending job interview, Wil will help obtain professional attire and a haircut from the volunteer barber at Loaves & Fishes. If the barber isn’t at Loaves, he will cut the guests’ hair himself.
Many of the these men helped for job interviews reward Wil with appreciative hug.
There are many other hurdles, too.
“I have some guests who have never been homeless and never been to Sacramento and they come here and within 48 hours of them being homeless, they’ve had their sleeping bags and their belongings stolen,” he said. “I’ve had the privilege of serving them and replacing some of their belongings with new items so that by the time that nighttime comes, they will be able to sleep in warmth. By the time that they walk out, they have tears in their eyes and are just thanking me. They are just so immensely thankful and it doesn’t matter how tough you are – when somebody says that to you, you can’t help but feel a deep level of satisfaction.”
At the wash house, guests can shower for as long as they like.
“We used to time the showers, but Garren stressed that we should offer quality over quantity,” Wil said. “We like for the guests to feel like they are at home. Homelessness is hard and sometimes you just need a long shower to soothe your nerves and feel better.”
After the shower, guests can exchange old clothing for clean clothing. The wash house also does laundry for 10 guests a day on a first-come, first-serve basis.
“After experiencing both sides of the coin at Loaves & Fishes, I’ve witnessed how extremely dedicated the staff are here,” Wil said. “We cater to an immense number of mentally ill people and people who battle with addiction and without the attention of the staff; they wouldn’t be able to meet their daily needs. That’s why it is so difficult to ask a guest to leave based on their behavior because we know how needy they are. We know that for some of our guests that the only meal that they have access to is in our dining room.”
Wil noted that Garren always emphasized to his employees that every decision made at Loaves & Fishes should err on the side of kindness.
And, as director of the wash house, he strives to do just that.