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.
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.