Although we are all impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, I can’t help but feel like the guests at Loaves & Fishes are suffering the most. For our guests, their modes of survival depend on many facilities throughout the Sacramento area, but those locations are no longer available. This puts a lot of weight on the staff at Loaves & Fishes. Being a Mercy Volunteer, it took time for me to adjust to our guests and try to understand their pain.
Although I will never be able to fully empathize with the pain of people experiencing homelessness, the world they live in (which already creates the conditions of daily struggle) has completely altered yet again. Our guests, which I often refer to as family now, don’t have the privilege or option to stay at home and still survive. Everyday some of our guests have to choose between catching a deadly virus or starving. Many of our guests don’t have a tent to stay in and feel safe, where some express never feeling safe at all.
While Loaves & Fishes staff are doing amazing things with carrying the load of caring for the homeless population of Sacramento, I can’t help but feel like the city could be doing more. Throughout the past week, myself and some staff at Friendship Park, led by the Advocacy Director Joe Smith, have been visiting camps and talking with the homeless population. They all say no one else has been there. My question is why?
Why has no one else bothered to stop by and care for our people? In the words of Gandhi, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” In that regard, we could all be doing more. A lot of our guests can’t understand the severity of this virus. This is due to the extreme, real fact, that many of the guests we see are impacted by mental illness and physical and intellectual disabilities. How can we simply get more guests to understand it? How can we help our guests to get tested? And how can we ensure they all get the basics of survival: water, food, and hygiene care?
These are issues and people that I feel like no one cares about. Most days I find myself arguing with my mother because she cannot grasp how I would risk my life everyday for free. I often relay to her that I can’t beg the world for change if I cannot do it myself.
Emerick Flores, Dining Room Program Director, joined the Sacramento Loaves & Fishes family in the beginning of March, just before the city’s shelter in place and social distancing measures were mandated due to COVID-19. Hear directly from Emerick in his interview with Janet Kuzawa, Communications & Outreach Specialist, where he shared his past experiences and what it was like to transition into the critical role of serving meals to our guests during a global pandemic.
When did you start working at Sacramento Loaves & Fishes?
I started in March. I started three weeks before all the countywide shelter-in-place. The beginning of my fourth week we shut down the kitchen and did everything to-go; I recall it was the week of St. Patrick’s Day.
Prior to joining Loaves & Fishes, where did you work?
I was an independent caterer as well as working at Conaway Ranch and Duck Club. During duck season I would do breakfast and lunches as well as cater events for them. I also volunteered at the VFW by supplying them with breakfast on Sundays.
How long have you worked in the food industry?
I have been professionally cooking since 2009. I went to culinary school for four years; I got a Bachelor’s in Culinary Management and was able to gain fine dining experience while employed at Conaway Ranch.
I remember having a brief conversation with you and you talked to me about starting a group home and working in social service. Can you provide a brief overview of that and what prompted you to want to offer that support to our community?
So I graduated from Fresno State with a Bachelor’s in Criminology and I wanted to go into law enforcement or corrections. I joined the Arizona Department of Corrections in 1996 and I left in 1998. I wasn’t helping. There’s no help in that field, there’s just a lot of negativity. And so I moved back to Fresno and started working in group homes. I had no clue group homes existed. I didn’t know there were kids that didn’t have a home – it seemed unfathomable. So I started working in group homes. First I worked with adolescent sex offenders in Fresno and there was 36 adolescents throughout six homes. Working in that field, I realized they were cutting corners to reduce costs and the services weren’t being provided for the kids and that’s when I decided I wanted to do my own and get it done right. And so I moved to Stockton and opened Stockton Foundation Group Homes. We started with one home with six kids and by 2011, I had two homes with 12 kids, all wards of the court. I just wanted to give back. I wanted to do something positive.
You mentioned initially that you wanted to be in law enforcement. What prompted that desire? Was there anything in particular about your life or any individual or mentors in your life that contributed to that initial goal?
Both of my parents were in the military, so I lived a very structured life. I grew up all over, but primarily in Europe – Italy, Germany and England. So I had a very structured childhood. My parents were very authoritarian – that’s what I thought I wanted to do, but it just didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel like I was helping anybody. And once I started in group homes, I realized that’s what I wanted to do. After the group homes I started cooking professionally, which I enjoyed, but I was still missing that giving part. So I started volunteering at the VFW and I would do their banquets – I was giving back. I did a year at the Salvation Army which I thought, “Hey, this is giving back. They’re doing good.” But it was very limited giving back; we only fed the 100 people that were in the shelter. If you were lucky enough to be in the shelter you got food, and if not, you didn’t get any. I peeked across the street and saw Loaves & Fishes. And I was like “Who are these people at Loaves & Fishes? What are they about?” I researched the Delany’s and their “why” and “what” and that’s when I realized, “That’s where I want to be. I want to get there.” Two years later, I saw an opening, applied and was offered a position. And I was excited. I was happy to be here.
Now that you are on campus what have you learned about this place? What are your feelings and your sense of the campus, the people, the volunteers, our guests?
A lot of our staff members, I noticed, they do it not for money, they do it for the heart. So at least two to three times a week, I attend the 6:45 a.m. meetings with the Friendship Park staff because that’s where I started to really understand this place. I really understood all of the unity, the team work, the goal, the mission. Those people are amazing. They’re out here on the street, they’re in the park, they care, and it keeps me motivated.
When our services had to adjust, Mustard Seed came in and started to help serve, no kitchen experience at all. By week three, I had them cooking, “Stacy, Emily, you want to learn how to cook? We’re going to learn today.” I overheard them just two days ago saying, “I like the way this [to-go] box feels. This box feels good. I like the way these feel.” Stacy is usually stationed at the window where she offers the food to our guests and every now and then she’ll grab one and be like, “You guys, this one’s a little light” and she sends it back and they add food to it and it gets her approval. And it’s just funny because that’s how much they care about the guests – they care how much food they’re getting.
Change – there’s a lot of change especially right now with all this going on. It doesn’t phase me – you just keep on moving. Because the main goal is to feed the people that need food and right now there’s a lot of them so we start making a lot more. Start cooking. Let’s do it.
Is there anything else you want to add about yourself, about how you feel?
We are doing the extra 200 [meals for Sacramento Steps Forward to distribute to those sheltering in place in encampments] and it might go up a little more, and I’m excited about it. Feed as many as we can. Every Friday, I try to do a little something special for our staff that are still here. I understand that it can be exhausting and overwhelming and I want to thank them for being here. We had smoothies today and omelets a week ago and we’ll keep the surprises coming.