Understanding the Backstories of those We Serve: Chatsworth, CA
Since 2005, the Sathya Sai Center of Chatsworth in Los Angeles, CA, has partnered with nonprofit agencies to feed people in need. In order to increase their understanding of the food recipients, the Center members began to learn more about where they came from — their backstories. These backstories that have deepened the empathy of the Sai volunteers for the people they serve. Unless otherwise indicated, names mentioned in these backstories have been changed for privacy reasons.
An attractive, neatly dressed woman with shiny blond hair in her 30s laughs with her sweet ten-year-old son. Svetlana smiles despite the dilapidated motel and dangerous streets around her. She beams as she accepts two hot burritos, grateful for this healthy, hand-delivered meal. She squeals with delight when she collects a bag full of groceries.
Shortly after Svetlana, her son Ivan, and her husband, emigrated from Russia, her husband left the family. Unemployed while caring for Ivan, Svetlana, an engineer, fell on hard times. They live in a motel room struggling to create a better life. Svetlana is a food delivery service driver whenever possible. These moments when Svetlana feels supported are times when her spirit feels uplifted.
Learning such backstories helps to motivate members of the Center to serve the community. In 2005, the Center members began working with the Valley Food Bank, and the North Valley Caring Services (NVCS), nonprofits which offer programs for food-insecure families. In their weekly Outreach Meals program, NVCS delivers approximately 240 meals to homeless families in local motels and those living on the streets.
For the past 15 years, the Center members delivered burritos and food bags to the homeless, for the Valley Food Bank and NVCS once every month. The burritos, full of pinto beans, rice, vegetables, and cheese are served hot. Silvia Robles, Community Liaison and Volunteer Coordinator for NVCS, noted, “The burritos are greeted with big smiles. They are a complete healthy meal and allow the homeless to save what money they have for their next meal.” The food bags, filled with rice, pinto beans, cookies, juice, fruit and other staples, help feed families through the week.
In addition to the monthly delivery, the Center also provided additional food and necessities for milestone events such as Sathya Sai Baba’s birthday and other holidays. Around Thanksgiving each year, they also give out two-gallon bags with full-size toiletries for the needy.
After COVID-19 hit, many people lost their jobs and their homes. Organizations such as NVCS have experienced an increased demand for food. The Sai volunteers accordingly began weekly distribution of burritos and food bags, and added peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and yellow rice to the menu. These sandwiches are distributed to the hungry individuals who often wait in long lines to receive food, where tension may sometimes run high. After accepting a sandwich made of soft bread, creamy peanut butter and strawberry jelly, the anger melts away. Inside the facility, the recipients enjoy flavorful yellow rice.
As the Sai volunteers understand more about who they serve, they understand why they serve. Greg Slee explains, “Understanding these backstories motivates us to do more. There are so many misconceptions about who we serve. Most recipients are decent people who simply had an unexpected turn in their lives or a stroke of bad luck.”
In the same motel as Svetlana and Ivan, a mother, father, and their eight children call their small motel room home. The children perform well in school, but daily life is challenging. Dad works occasionally as a laborer as he struggles with addiction. For this family, a tasty, healthy, hot burrito for each family member is their most satisfying meal of the week. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the children to take to school the next day is a blessing, and groceries for the week ease the stress of feeding ten mouths.
In a parking lot not too far from the motel, Pilar, a nurse, and her husband, Manny, a veteran, live in their family car, after losing their home due to severe diabetes that made them unable to work. Center members understand that Manny and Pilar are decent people whose health created challenging times. For them, receiving this food allows them to eat well while saving money in order to rent a room to call home.
Mr. Slee shares a photo of a handsome young man wearing a backwards baseball cap and a beaming smile as he eats a burrito. John’s happiness is palpable in that moment. Mr. Slee sadly explains that he learned of this homeless man’s passing shortly after that photo was taken, saying, “We cannot always change the course of others’ lives but we can do something to help their lives.”