The Kindness Cantina

The Kindness Cantina

In the emergency room of Dignity Health’s Methodist Hospital, in South Sacramento, ordinary snacks serve a noble cause. Caz Sliwa, a registered nurse, operates Kindness Cantina, which provides hospital staff with soda, coffee, chips and the opportunity to give back to their homeless neighbors for just a dollar. He has volunteered at Loaves & Fishes for the past three years.

Sliwa stocks and maintains the venue that buys a monthly nutritious breakfast served by him and fellow emergency room employees to the guests of Friendship Park. Sliwa’s manager came up with the idea for Kindness Cantina after the hospital did away with all of its vending machines, leaving the staff without an outlet for snacking pleasures.

The Kindness Cantina, stationed in the staff break room, operates through the honor system: patrons fork over a buck for each snack purchased.

“We supply potato chips, Doritos, candy and cans of soda, and it is great for our staff and especially our nighttime staff to have the opportunity to buy snacks because in the middle of the night, they can’t go anywhere to get food,” Sliwa said.

The proceeds afford a nutritious breakfast for guests of Friendship Park, including hard-boiled eggs, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and homemade oatmeal topped with brown sugar, raisins and milk. The morning meal serves about 300 and costs about $550 to put together.

Sliwa and his co-workers also bring survival supplies from the hospital to Friendship Park, such blankets, inflatable mattresses and socks.

A Loaves & Fishes sock donation bag stationed in the hopsital.

The best part about volunteering, Sliwa says, is being able to make a difference in the lives of those who are experiencing homelessness. “Many of us are nurses; and that’s why we became nurses, because we like to help people,” he said.

“We set our breakfast up so that everything that we do is portable – a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a baggie is going to last a long time and we make hardboiled eggs so that they can eat those anytime of the day,” Sliwa said. “I’ve heard people say that this is great that we have dinner for tonight.”

Though the group only serves the breakfast once a month, the Kindness Cantina provides Methodist Hospital staff the opportunity to give back 365 days a year.

“For us, the breakfast program is really a daily thing at Methodist Hopsital to draw people to support Loaves & Fishes,” Sliwa said. “I have one guy who told me that he never thought that he would pay $50 a month for peanut M&Ms, but because he knows where the money is going; he drops a $20 bill in the money bucket for Kindness Cantina and will take out several packages of peanut M&Ms over the course of a week.”

The Friendship Park Kiosk as experienced by a former newspaper editor

Randy Rodda who volunteers in the Friendship Park kiosk and the dining room shares what it is like to work in Friendship Park, where many who are experiencing homelessness find comfort, community and a safe place to rest their eyes.  

Loaves & Fishes staffers and volunteers put on their game face — humility, empathy and elbow grease — while dispensing some of the comforts of home to those who have none.

This scene plays out in kind daily from a kiosk in Friendship Park, where guests form a queue outside two service windows to obtain lunch tickets, crucial information and the bare necessities for confronting the rigors and uncertainties of life without hearth or home.

By way of introduction, I’m a novice volunteer in the kiosk, stationed here on Thursdays, mostly behind a computer screen and keyboard, signing up the hundreds who depend heavily on a hearty lunch to fill the void of diets that too often are fed by slim pickings.

This task is not far-flung from my career as an editor for the daily newspaper in Buffalo, N.Y., from where I retired recently before moving closer to my daughter in Sacramento. Both tasks are filled with uncertainties, deadline pressures and a never-ending learning curve — all hinged on the hopes that you’re doing right by folks who really, really depend on you.

Some guests arriving at Friendship Park are newly homeless, in need of just about everything, including survival gear and encouraging advice on how to navigate and survive in an affluent community that talks the talk about solutions for housing the homeless but, as yet, can’t seem to walk the walk.

Others guests are veterans of the dilemma, and rely on Friendship Park as a daily lifeline, way station and social circle, beginning with coffee at 7 a.m.  to last call about mid-afternoon. From here, they branch out to take advantage of myriad services, from the simple luxury of taking a shower to exchanging clothing and shoes weathered by life on the streets.

Carol Brown, my co-volunteer in the park kiosk on Thursdays, is a veteran Loaves & Fishes volunteer of many years.  She is a role model of composure and a comfort to both staffers and guests — unflappable in the face of the unexpected and a constant reminder that the job is always a learning experience. No experts need apply.

Carol, captured in a fleeting moment in between dispensing vitamins, Chapstick and tums to the guests of Friendship Park.

Our kiosk domain features drawers, shelves, nooks and crannies containing articles of great importance to the guests, who spend much time outdoors.

There are safety pins and sewing kits that extend the life of clothing, backpacks and sleeping bags. There are shoelaces.

Sunscreen, lip balm and bug repellent are essentials, especially for the extremes of the Sacramento summer. Hygiene kits distributed toward the end of the Friendship Park day include shampoo, conditioner, soap, a toothbrush and toothpaste.  Also available are mouthwash, sanitizer, tissue packs, wet wipes, dental floss, combs and nail clippers.

The kiosk is an over-the-counter source for painkillers, including aspirin, ibuprofen and acetaminophen — a welcome comfort for those who log miles of harsh life on sore feet. There are vitamins, antacids and Band-aids and antiseptics.

Though the promise of sundries and articles for the guests is consistent, availability is not always guaranteed. Sometimes there are shortages and other times things just run out. Candy is always in demand, especially before lunch,  but the sweet treats are largely dependent on what is donated.

This modest kiosk also serves as nerve central for Friendship Park and services, including day storage for guests, bicycle sign-up and cellphone charging.

Park administrator Hannah Ozanian works aside a determined crew of staffers who mingle with guests, make sure resources are available and ensure order and the well-being for all.

Just outside the front window of the kiosk, guests can sign up for health insurance options. Nearby, housing counseling and veterans outreach services are available.

But for many of the guests, the Friendship Park experience is down time — relaxation on benches, with some even managing to catch a few winks.  Others play cards or catch up on shared interests.

And, on special days, community musicians provide the familiar tunes and backbeat for some good-natured karaoke — typically, a post-lunch coda to another day at Friendship Park.

From this volunteer’s outlook from the kiosk, very little is ever routine and every day serves up a unique set of challenges.

This nothing-new, nothing-ventured analogy is one explanation for why the dedication of volunteers like Carol Brown is counted in the years. Making a difference in the lives of others is a rich reward, indeed.

Jerry Ryle, Dining Room and Jail Visitation Volunteer

At over six feet tall, Jerry Ryle’s deep voice has a slight Irish lilt. Now, a retired priest, he grew up in the Land Park neighborhood of Sacramento. At the time, the neighborhood was composed of working class families and Sacramento was a small city – with a population of just 240,000 people.

“Back then no one locked their doors,” he said. “I always wanted be a soda jerk at Vic’s Ice Cream Shop. They had the best ice cream.”

Jerry never got the job, but he worked as a bag boy at the Arata Brothers grocery store next to his family’s bar, the Irish Tavern.

“Oak Park was heavily Irish and then it was mostly black and now it’s getting gentrified,” he said.

Jerry entered the seminary when he was a freshman in high school. Twelve years later, he finished his studies and was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Sacramento.

His first assignment was at St. Patrick’s in Grass Valley – a community rich in California Gold Rush history. He then taught at St. Francis High School. Following that, he spent two and a half years at The Abbey of Our Lady of New Clairvaux, a Cistercian farming monastery nestled in the northern Sacramento valley. Though Jerry was attracted to the communal monastic life, he realized that his true vocation was in the parish community. He loves people and savors listening to the stories of their lives.

After leaving the monastery he was sent for several years to St. Philomene’s Church in Sacramento. He then was entitled to a new sabbatical year which he spent at the University of California in Berkeley. There he pursued studies in medieval European history. After this, he served as an assistant pastor at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Vallejo. From St Catherine’s he was sent to St. Lawrence the Martyr Church, located in the neighborhood of North Highlands. There he was finally made a pastor.

During Jerry’s 14 year tenure at St. Lawrence, three homes near to the church blew up in meth lab explosions and the church’s glass tower was shattered with gunshots on three different occasions.

Once, a lover’s quarrel occurred right across the street from church after evening mass. The victim of the shooting crawled over to the church asking for help. Jerry left his parishioners to meet the man outside  so that he didn’t bring the crossfire to the congregation.  Two parishioners — Mary, a nurse and Carol, a PE teacher — came with Jerry to help the man before an ambulance arrived.

“Mary automatically took off her white wool coat and made a pillow for his head and I thought that was the sweetest thing,” Jerry said.

The man survived, but it took over a year for the shooting to come to trial.

“It was just another day in North Highlands,” Jerry said.

Because North Highlands had an emerging Mexican population, Jerry decided to study Spanish for two months in Cuernavaca, Mexico to be able to reach out to new parishioners.

But after his schooling in Mexico, the Diocese transferred him to the heavily Spanish speaking parish of St. Christopher’s in Galt. In the rural and predominantly Mexican farming community, Jerry says that he gradually learned conversational Spanish. It took a year for him to become oriented to the culture of the vineyards and the dairies. But, once he was welcomed into the community’s Mexican culture, Jerry said that Galt became a dream come true.

As a retiree, Jerry lives in Campus Commons, and is an avid reader. He enjoys cooking and having friends over for dinner. His favorite dishes include chicken Provencal and pasta Bolognese.

On Tuesdays, he volunteers in the Loaves & Fishes dining room and performs food prep from 6:30 to 10 AM. After that, he volunteers with the Jail Visitation program.

For the past year and two months, he has visited a man named Robert in the Sacramento county jail.

Though Robert spent over a year in solitary he has yet to receive a hearing. He is a poet, an artist and a committed Christian. Robert has come to know God and Jesus Christ through his bible study while in jail.

“You listen, but you also share,” Jerry said about his time visiting Robert.

Jerry has sent Robert paperback books to read including an inspirational book about the lives of saints and a book about colored pencil drawing techniques, recommended to Robert by another inmate.

Robert has shared his artistic talents with Jerry sending him and his family members some of the greeting cards he has designed.

A Mother’s Day card that Robert designed for Jerry’s niece.

Jerry says that the experience of visiting Robert in the jail has taught him that we are built to encounter one another and learn the healing power of love.

Donald Lewis: Bike renovator, handyman and Loaves & Fishes volunteer

Donald Lewis delights in bringing new life to objects that are in disrepair.

He volunteers at Friendship Park on Wednesday and Friday, the Loaves & Fishes maintenance shed on Tuesday and Thursday and then Tuesday and Thursday evening and Saturday afternoon at the Bicycle Kitchen.

Donald has refurbished his 1970’s era, 9 foot chopper cruiser bike himself. It has a radio with speakers attached to its handle.

A relative newcomer to Sacramento, he  recently rode his chopper all the way to historic Folsom. Originally from Woodland, Colorado, he is enamored with Sacramento’s bike trails.

“I taught myself how to ride a bicycle when I was 7 years old and have been building and riding bicycles ever since,” Donald said.

He bikes to Loaves & Fishes from his home in Tahoe Park nearly every day.

Donald said the most important lesson, he has learned in life has been how to approach others with the desire to learn from them.

He knows intimately what it is like to be judged for his demeanor and physique rather than for his intellect or talent.

“People have a tendency to judge me because I stutter and walk with a limp” he said. “They don’t immediately notice my talents or intellect.”

“The Loaves & Fishes staff smile every time I show up – that makes me feel welcome because I feel like I am a part of their family,” he said.

“There are a lot of really good people at Loaves & Fishes that care for a lot of people here,” Donald said. “There are a lot of people with psych problems who would have nowhere else to go if it wasn’t for this community of people who care so much.”