Austin’s El Buen Samaritano is filling bellies and brightening spirits with 500 holiday meals

By | December 24, 2023

In the misty hours before dawn on Friday, Santa’s sleigh looked more like an 18-wheeler from HEB, strolling along Woodhue Drive and being the center of festivities for 500 families in need.

“Turkey is here!” shouted one of the El Buen Samaritano coordinators as volunteers waited for towering boxes of frozen poultry, more than 7,500 pounds, to be wheeled from the truck to the sanctuary of the San Francisco de Asis Episcopal Church. With half the chairs cleared, the worship space had become a workspace where dozens of volunteers turned food supplies into holiday meal kits.

Cars lined up outside the South Austin mission, the drivers hungry and hopeful. When the distribution started around 9 a.m., they left with all the ingredients for Christmas dinner – a turkey, stuffing, corn, green beans, macaroni and cheese, pumpkin pie, butter, milk and a 5-pound bag of russet potatoes – enough to fill. bellies and steep kitchens with the aromas of holiday abundance.

“It’s happiness for me,” Patricia Arriaga told me in Spanish, an El Buen employee translating as she waited for the food that would feed her family of six. “With this I bless everyone.”

Volunteer Tony Cruz, center, and HEB truck driver Pedro Ramos, right, unload a truckload of groceries for an annual holiday giveaway dinner at El Buen Samaritano on Friday.

Volunteer Tony Cruz, center, and HEB truck driver Pedro Ramos, right, unload a truckload of groceries for an annual holiday giveaway dinner at El Buen Samaritano on Friday. “It really is a time when magic happens at El Buen,” said Georgia Hernandez, donor relations manager for the mission.

The Good Samaritan of the Bible is a stranger who unexpectedly comes to the aid of someone else, but the staff and volunteers of El Buen Samaritano are neighbors who understand what it means to need help. Some of them first came to the mission as food bank clients and over time grew from assisted to helpers.

“If El Buen didn’t exist, it would have to be invented,” says Juan Rosa, who arrived in 2006 in need of food, then became a student and leader in the mission’s adult English classes, and now runs the food bank. “Someone should say we need such an organization.”

Biweekly food bank events are literally El Buen’s bread and butter, but the mission offers a range of services: after-school and summer programs for youth. Computer lessons for adults. Assistance with rental. Vaccination clinics.

This year, the Mission added services (by appointment) to help people navigate the applications and long wait times for food stamps, Medicaid and the Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC. The purchase of a grant-funded refrigerated food truck tripled the amount of food provided at El Buen’s mobile food pantry events, roving oases in Austin’s food deserts.

Lindiwe Lungu and her 8-month-old daughter Cassie Kluth cut through the line Friday at El Buen Samaritano's holiday dinner giveaway.  The annual Posadas at El Buen event provided holiday meal kits for 500 families in Central Texas.Lindiwe Lungu and her 8-month-old daughter Cassie Kluth cut through the line Friday at El Buen Samaritano's holiday dinner giveaway.  The annual Posadas at El Buen event provided holiday meal kits for 500 families in Central Texas.

Lindiwe Lungu and her 8-month-old daughter Cassie Kluth cut through the line Friday at El Buen Samaritano’s holiday dinner giveaway. The annual Posadas at El Buen event provided holiday meal kits for 500 families in Central Texas.

But the big annual undertaking is the Hands for Hope holiday meal campaign, which provided 1,000 Thanksgiving meal kits in November; 1,500 HEB gift cards ($70 each) for other families to purchase their own Thanksgiving feasts; and the 500 meal kits distributed Friday as families prepared for Christmas. The mission estimates that the entire program, funded by $450,000 in donations, translates into meals for 12,000 people.

Appropriately, Friday’s event was called Posadas in El Buen, a reference to the Latino Christmas celebrations that recounted Mary and Joseph’s search for a place to stay before Jesus was born. A DJ at the food distribution drive-thru played Latino pop and pulsating cumbia beats, interspersed with touches of Taylor Swift and the Black Eyed Peas.

“Posada is truly a time when you are called to open your doors to the stranger, to your neighbors, to the person in need, and create a home for them,” said Georgia Hernandez, donor relations manager for the mission. “So the idea is to bring the community together – not just the families that you serve, but also the volunteers who want to come and serve. It really is a time when magic happens at El Buen.”

From left to right, volunteers Miguel Pompa, 14, Nolan Clay, 18, Aimee Zivin and Karen Green prepare meal kits at El Buen Samaritano.  The meal kits include a frozen turkey and all the side dishes to prepare a holiday dinner at home.From left to right, volunteers Miguel Pompa, 14, Nolan Clay, 18, Aimee Zivin and Karen Green prepare meal kits at El Buen Samaritano.  The meal kits include a frozen turkey and all the side dishes to prepare a holiday dinner at home.

From left to right, volunteers Miguel Pompa, 14, Nolan Clay, 18, Aimee Zivin and Karen Green prepare meal kits at El Buen Samaritano. The meal kits include a frozen turkey and all the side dishes to prepare a holiday dinner at home.

Hernandez also grew up with El Buen programming. The mission, which turns 35 next year, provided the diapers and baby food she needed as a baby. Now Hernandez is a staffer and her siblings help out as volunteers.

Before the corona crisis, the food bank helped a few hundred families a week; During the heaviest periods of the pandemic, there were then 700 to 800 families per week; and it reached a new normal of 300 to 400 families per week.

But even that has been on the rise in recent months, Hernandez said. Grocery bills and rental prices continue to rise. Some employees lose hours or even their jobs.

“We’re seeing some families making the choice, ‘Do I pay my bills, my rent or do I buy food?’” she said. “And so the main goal is for families to come to El Buen (for assistance) and not have to make that choice.”

Volunteer Marisol Reyes works on meal packages for Posadas in El Buen on Friday.Volunteer Marisol Reyes works on meal packages for Posadas in El Buen on Friday.

Volunteer Marisol Reyes works on meal packages for Posadas in El Buen on Friday.

Zane Hill made sure he was first in line on Friday and parked at the front more than two hours early, even though all recipients were given a time slot for a guaranteed meal package. Hill told me his car is almost empty. “I don’t want to have to stand idling in line” behind other cars, he explained.

Hill passes with a disability check. He said this vacation bonus will provide him and his roommate with meals for days.

“It’s a blessing and much-needed help,” he said.

And it didn’t come from faceless elves, angels or Santa Clauses, but from neighbors who can relate to his struggle and find joy in overcoming it together.

Grumet is a columnist for the Statesman’s Metro. Her column, ATX in Context, contains her opinions. Share yours via email at bgrumet@statesman.com or via Twitter at @bgrumet. Find her previous work at statesman.com/news/columns.

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Austin nonprofit feeds 500 families with Christmas cheer | Grumet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *