Spreading love through filling stomachs: San Diego, CA
Sai volunteers in San Diego have been making and distributing fresh food to the homeless every Sunday since 1988. The 33-year old project, currently a collaboration involving members of the Sri Sathya Sai Centers of North County San Diego, North East San Diego, Point Loma and San Marcos, has evolved over decades to meet the needs of the hungry and homeless.
In the beginning, volunteers from Sri Sathya Sai Baba Center of San Diego–Point Loma prepared bean burritos and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in a Sai volunteer's home. They distributed the food, along with water, fruit and pastries, to the homeless in a vacant lot in downtown San Diego. Sai Spiritual Education (SSE) students and their parents then became regularly involved in making sandwiches. When the vacant lot became unavailable, volunteers took the food downtown and handed them out from their car windows to the homeless sleeping on the streets. In time, that evolved into volunteers setting up a portable table near the Neal Good Day Center (run by Catholic Charities), a popular gathering spot for the homeless, to distribute both food and bottled water.
In 2002, volunteers resumed making delicious, vegetarian burritos and added fresh fruit, which were then distributed to the homeless at the Neal Good Day Center. In 2003, the shelter changed its policy about allowing volunteers to serve in the shelter. Sai Center members again set up tables on the sidewalk. A longtime Sai volunteer, Agnes Hughes, explained that all four San Diego Sai Centers became involved in the food distribution, which slowly evolved into a buffet style meal served every Sunday afternoon. Volunteers began to show up with dishes they had prepared. At first, some just dropped off food, perhaps, uncomfortable with the setting. Eventually, they were prompted by the peaceful and loving environment to stay and experience the joy that came from personally serving their homeless brothers and sisters.
The service would begin with a blessing. Participants would line up to receive a meal of rice and vegetables, their choice of several hot dishes, salads and fresh fruits from the buffet. They would also be given a grocery bag to pack a meal-to-go consisting of a variety of sandwiches, burritos, fruits, water bottle, and snacks. For some years, a bus or van would occasionally collect the homeless from various parts of town and bring them to the buffet line. According to one regular participant, the word was out: Sai volunteers were dependable, open-hearted, and provided good, nourishing food! The proof was reflected in a substantial increase in the number of people served. Volunteers began to serve about 150-200 homeless individuals every Sunday! Over the years, volunteer participation also grew and services were expanded to meet additional needs of the homeless, including clothing, blankets, hygiene kits and school supplies. When there was an excess, food and clothing were taken to an orphanage in Tijuana, Mexico. In recent years, on rainy Sundays, the Neal Good Day Center staff welcomed volunteers into their covered patio area where Sai volunteers would set up tables and serve food and water to the long line of 150-200 people.
When the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, Sai volunteers adjusted once again. Initially, the Sunday buffet was replaced with tacos ordered from Taco Bell. In May, tacos were replaced with lunch bags filled with sandwiches, fruit, and bottled water. Volunteers also provide packets of premade delicious vegetarian rice and pasta as well as face masks and sanitizers to combat the pandemic. Doing their best to respond to the needs of the homeless, volunteers distributed hats during the summer heat wave. When one Sai Center member noticed many homeless sleeping on the bare concrete, they distributed beach mats.
Gary Yoder, another longtime Sai volunteer who helped start this service project, remarked that working with this project since 1988 has created a deep understanding of the need and issues of the homeless community. He appreciates the wonderful sense of unity and peace that has been fostered in his heart and the hearts of other volunteers. Another volunteer, Dharma Narayanan, reflected, “for decades, members of the San Diego Centers have pivoted according to circumstances, making sure to do their part in spreading love by filling stomachs.”