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Food Pantry: Photos & Interviews

Hear what some volunteers have to say about St. Gregory's Food Pantry:

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Lauren: When I was a kid, I thought I was a girl — it was back before anyone talked about 'transgender,' I just knew I was female. I went to Catholic school, Our Lady of Mercy in the Bronx. I hid in books. I didn't have a great intellect, but I had a great faith. I stayed after school so nobody would make fun of me or beat me up. I remember they'd separate the boys from the girls at recess, and I'd cry all the time. I'd sit out in the playground, by this statue of Jesus, and cry.
I came here the first time to get food; a friend told me about the place. I was living in the Tenderloin in a studio with my partner: he's very sick with HIV, and I have Hepatitis C, so neither of us can work fulltime. The doctors told me, all the meds in the world won't restore your health. But I thought, I have a lot to be grateful for. I'm still alive. I can't stand up and lift things, but I can find some way to help out. It makes me feel more human.

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Michael: After I fell into drugs, I did 14 months, some in San Quentin and then in Soledad. In jail I had to kick heroin and methadone cold turkey. It was horrible.
There was a crappy little library, and I read all the books nobody else wanted. With two other guys I knew from the street, we'd be walking around the San Quentin yard discussing James Joyce and Thomas Hardy...
Well, I got out. And I decided I wasn't gonna go back. My girlfriend was coming to the food pantry to get groceries — she's on disability from an accident, and can't work. But then 9/11 happened, and a few months later I had to leave my job because the INS was coming around. Even if you have a visa, if you're a foreigner and been in jail you have to be off parole 10 years before they let you work. So I was unemployed, and I'd come to the pantry, and then volunteered to work. It's been two years now, and I've only missed one Friday. I run the program now.
I feel you're dealing with people who are beaten down enough, there should be places that build them up. We see a whole range of problems at the pantry. When people come they're often very angry, or ashamed to be here, or stressed. It's important to have a laugh with them. You can be firm and fair, and keep everyone feeling safe. You ask them to do things, don't yell and scream, and you can get a lot of people wanting to help.
I've lived through the wars. I was a working-class Irish Catholic living in London when the IRA was blowing things up, there were gangs of Brits attacking Irish pubs, the police were raiding Irish neighborhoods. I was a drug addict for ten years. Most of the people I knew then are dead, or doing life in prison. We had a kid at the pantry recently I hadn't seen for years, he just got out of prison and was looking for help. When I talk to people like that I want to tell them how it can be different, and if you're ready there are things you can do to make a difference.

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Nirmala: I was born in Santiago, Chile, and brought up Catholic, by my grandmother. She was like someone from another world. I remember we'd spend a lot of time in the cemetery, taking care of graves. My mother didn't want me, and my father — an artist — had another family, so I moved from house to house among uncles and aunts with my grandmother. Then for two years I was sent to live in the convent, because they said I was 'wild.' When I was 13 I moved with my father to Texas, where we ran a bakery. It was strange and difficult: I didn't know the language, and I went into a deep depression.
Then one day I was walking in Chinatown and I met this man, and we started talking and decided to be friends. I said I needed food, he told me about this food pantry. I started coming, and realized I wanted to help. I'm the kind of person who likes to be doing something always, and I wanted so much to have a purpose.
We go through a lot of changes in life. I've realized it's a karmic thing for me to be at the pantry. It's a blessing to be in this body, and to do something if we can. People at the pantry sometimes drive me insane, they push, they fight, I think oh my God, why am I here? I have no idea, but it's something I have to contemplate.
I don't know where my story's going to end, or what I'm doing it for. But it fills my heart. I'm not happy, but I'm content. Content is deep. You can have suffering in it: good and bad and nasty times and horror and whatever. We're not going to sainthood here, we're just on a path.