A warm weekly meal provides dignity
and community as well as nourishment
Creating a community, clockwise from top, volunteers
Deborah Watson- Graff and Barbara Baldock, guest
Jocelyn Metcalf, volunteers assembled to serve a meal, volunteer
Linda Frederikson, guest Remedios Haskin and guest Sun Nam.
By Patrice Vecchione
Photography by Michelle Magdalena
This is a loaves and fishes story. Although some weeks, it’s chicken, broccoli and rice, and others, piping hot lasagna. Every Tuesday, one group of local women serves lunch to another group of local women.
For whatever outward differences there may be between the individuals— who has red hair and who’s a blonde, who’s tall and who’s short— the main difference is that at the end of the day one group gets to go home and the other doesn’t.
Together, a crew of about 30 volunteer chefs and servers and dozens of local homeless women form Gathering for Women when they sit down and share a delicious meal together.
It’s just after 9am on a Tuesday at Moose Lodge #876 in Del Rey Oaks, Monterey, and both the front of the house and the back are buzzing. Salads are being tossed, casseroles are slipped in and out of the oven. Tables are spread with white tablecloths and decorated with pretty bouquets of fresh flowers.
The first Gathering Place for Women—as Gathering for Women was originally known—hosted 17 homeless women for a meal in the hall at San Carlos Cathedral.
But gradually the number of weekly guests, as Gathering for Women’s clients are lovingly known, has swollen to an average of 70 to 100. And because the church needed its hall for holiday events, Gathering for Women needed to find a year-round home. After losing its lease at its most recent location, the Moose Lodge, the group secured a new home in November at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Monterey Peninsula.
Also in November, the local Interfaith Homeless Emergency Lodging Program (I-HELP) launched a special program to provide an evening meal and overnight shelter for women. But more commonly, as with the San Carlos Cathedral’s Loaves and Fishes, for example, local meals for the homeless are intended to serve women and men together, and the Gathering for Women volunteers who did research before starting their own program noticed that very few women attended these mixed events. It turns out the women were afraid of being harmed.
“We wanted to find a place where women would feel safe,” says volunteer Kathleen Baker, “and some of the homeless women, based on their experience, feel more comfortable in environments without men present.”
And Gathering for Women provides more than just meals in a safe setting. The volunteers dispense assessments and referrals to each of their guests, matching them with available community resources. They also offer vouchers for showers and gas.
As a result, many of the women return each week to a place where they feel welcomed because they are, where they experience having a voice because they’re listened to.
One guest, Theresa Norman, who stands close beside a woman I’m lightheartedly asked to name here as “The Queen,” says, “I come here to see my friend.” Each week Theresa and The Queen sit next to each other at the same table and enjoy easy conversation out of the elements, in a place where they can relax into their friendship.
Another guest who calls herself Scarlett, a retired interior designer, says, “This is the only time when homeless women can share information and enjoy a hot meal together. The volunteers are lovely—non-judgmental. We need kindness more than anything else. You know, people have an idea about who homeless women are that’s not accurate. Many of us are in transition. Starting in 2008 things got really bad for me.”
Sarah, a woman who has recently become homeless, describes her situation.
“It happens fast—first you get sick, then you lose your job, and with no income, next goes your apartment,” Sarah says. “I’m a smart woman. This shouldn’t have happened to me.”
It’s no small thing to prepare lunch for this many guests. Five rotating crews do the food preparation; about 30 women help each time, drawn from a cadre of about 140 volunteers.
“Since we don’t have our own kitchen, if I’m going to make a vegetable omelet, I have to begin chopping a couple of days beforehand,” says Donna Shewchuk, one of the volunteer chefs. And the volunteers aren’t the only ones providing lunch.
Enormous support comes from The Food Bank for Monterey County, Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s and Palermo’s Bakery. Local restaurants also contribute significantly. Rosine’s offered meals at the beginning; now Old Fisherman’s Grotto, the Fish Hopper and First Awakenings contribute on various weeks. Items such as breads, salads, beverages and hardboiled eggs are both donated and prepared by the volunteers.
“We started out with almost no money, no idea how much it would cost to feed the guests and no idea how many women would come,” Shewchuk says. “We liked the idea of a buffet line where we could welcome the women as we served them.”
One Tuesday I join the buffet line, where women are happily chatting together. The volunteer servers fill my plate with the hot entrée, salad and garlic bread. There is iced tea and lemon water. Later, as the room is humming with conversation, apron-clad volunteers come around the room with slices of homemade chocolate cake. No paper plates or plastic silverware, either—this place is classy.
Gaby Gonzalez, a guest originally from Panama who’s been a U.S. citizen for many years, stands out in a brilliant orange blouse and easily flags me down from across the room.
“I want to talk to you!” Gonzalez says. “I’m very happy to eat here. The people treat me so well. One day I want to volunteer here, too.”
Monterey artist and writer Patrice Vecchione’s latest book is Step into Nature: Nurturing Imagination and Spirit in Everyday Life. She will lead a writing retreat in the spring at Santa Barbara’s La Casa de Maria. For more, go to www.patricevecchione.com.
HOW TO HELP: More information about donating money, food, camping equipment, clothing, personal products or time to Gathering for Women may be found at www.gatheringforwomen.org or by calling 831.241.6154.