Serra’s Pantry gives back this holiday season

Volunteers prepare to reach out the homeless for the upcoming holidays (Joseph Fleming/Lariat)

Volunteers prepare to reach out the homeless for the upcoming holidays (Joseph Fleming/Lariat)

Half-conscious, your thoughts begin defrosting. Your mind’s perception of the current situation is conflicting with pure relaxation in your borough of warmth. Your body and mind are in the same building, but on two different floors. One is beginning to stretch while the other forces your eyes shut, battling to seize total control. You are waking up.  And then BOOM. It hits you.

“Wait, was that a dream?” It doesn’t take long to calculate the correct answer as to what day it is. Double checking the calendar receives a smirk. Most days it would be too early to be smiling, but this isn’t just any day. This specific day’s significance has created it’s own season due to the worldwide, all-encompassing connection of festivities. You’ve been waiting all year. It’s Christmas Day.

Full stockings hang in the living room as the morning sun finds its way through the window blinds, illuminating the portion of Christmas tree ornaments. Genuine laughter fills through the house, louder and louder as pictures and videos are taken of surprised relatives looking in awe at their opened presents. Chunks of carpet can be seen on the floor of wrapping paper, as the smells of breakfast and coffee find their way from the kitchen.

Since childhood, you look forward to this globally anticipated holiday. Now imagine all of that taken away from you. Never experiencing Christmas movies by the fire and writing down all of the things you wanted to Santa Claus. Imagine being worried rather than ecstatic about this time of the year because it’s freezing outside.

According to Green Doors, a national alliance of community service to end homelessness, there are approximately 643,000 people in America experiencing homelessness on any given night. California holds 22 percent of that with over 118,000 people. This goes hand in hand with the hundreds of opportunities to help those less fortunate. In my community, I found three easily accessible ways to give back that are more than likely available in yours.

Anyone is capable of twisting the meaning of this holiday, focused only on their list of gifts. But for Serra’s Pantry volunteer James Silva, he rather look to assist those in need.

“Here at Serra’s Pantry, we help low income families in need,” he said. “We register clients from San Clemente all the way to Lake Forest. All the clients can come once a week, other pantries it’s usually once a month.”

Serra’s Pantry has been serving families for 26 years at the Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano. Serra’s Pantry provides more than 500 families each month with food and hygiene items. The food is shared to those in need from donations made by the Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano, Second Harvest, Trader Joe’s, Costco and the United States Department of Agriculture programs administered by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s 2nd Harvest Regional Food Bank.

Parish donations fund the pantry’s refrigerators, freezers, and the average $2,000 a month on store supplies.In 1991, Msgr. Martin did just that. When the new, then-called “Mission Parish School” was built in 1986, the current-day store was a classroom until Msgr. Martin gave it to the pantry, turning it into their grocery store.

One to two times a month, depending on the number of families in need, Serra’s Pantry gives out tickets three days a week, around 8 a.m. When a ticket is called, that underprivileged family goes into the store providing canned goods and hygiene supplies. Depending on the size of the family, an amount of “points” is assigned. Within the store, the more points allow for more items to be given. After going through the store, a lengthy line of additional options are offered including, beef and steak options, a loaf of sliced bread, butter or cheese, sandwich meat, fruits, vegetables, salads, sweets and even flowers.

“The kids get me,” Silva said. “They come and they get to pick out cupcakes and they’re just so excited. All the love and care as a volunteer we give back to our clients and we get to know them, we know their kids, we become a family.”  

With Serra’s Pantry availability on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, from 8 to 12 o’clock, Silva admits he is rarely seen on the weekend. But there are also those unavailable on weekdays, such as the younger group of volunteers. Local JSerra Catholic’s Sofia Burton heard about the volunteer opportunity through a friend at school.

“The idea of being so thankful for what you have to the point where you can give back to other people is important,” Burton said. “We’re so blessed to live here and so blessed to have the opportunities that we do, I think it’s our duty to help people in need.”

For Sofia’s friend, JSerra senior Gysel Bequer, volunteering at Serra’s Pantry isn’t just community service, but a mentality of selflessness.

“Whatever we do, even though some things feel really small, it all adds up,” she said. “For the amount of people that come through, you’re not just helping out one person, but the people surrounding them. We’re all the same, really, and they’re all just trying to make it through life, make the best of it and use their resources.”

Helping share food with the needy is a way to give back, especially during the holidays. But with Christmas time comes colder weather, making most a little more grateful for their warm home.

San Juan Capistrano’s Our Father’s Table, a Christ-based ministry where volunteers help walk alongside those that are experiencing homelessness, helping them back to respiration. Our Father’s Table was created four years ago, the purpose being to connect those living on the streets to homeless agencies within the county. According to foundress Gina Seriel, there are over 200 agencies that deal with homelessness in Orange County alone.

“There is a disconnect between those that are homeless and the agencies and services that they provide,” Seriel said. “We’re almost like a matchmaker between our folks and our agencies.”

Our Father’s Table has grown mainly into doing more street outreach than anything else. They  have become an agency that goes to the homeless, assisting them while on the street, becoming a true friend and making them feel a little more special during the holidays.

“In the little over three years that we’ve been doing the field work we’ve taken 128 (people) off the street with a 95 percent success (rate) and we’re looking to expand to go into other cities right now,” Seriel said. “Our goal in the next three to five years is to expand to additional, expanding cities and to create a playbook that we can franchise and chapter this out to other places in the country.”

For Seriel, these acts of kindness have an inspiration behind them.

“What surprised me the most is the amount of people that are on the street, that do not have any self-worth and the public’s perception of labeling them to create the boundaries of them and us has really shocked me over the years,” Seriel said. “I’m a Christian and for me it’s just the fact that this is what my calling is. I prayed and prayed to have him guide me and lead me on what to do and this is what has come out of that.”

Our Father’s Table has a help-line for those in need and volunteer information on their website. There are homeless in every community, finding a local place to help out is available with a simple online search.

The Mission San Juan Capistrano went hand in hand with a third way of giving back, collaborating with the OC Toy collaborative, Toys for Tots, Sparks for Life, law enforcement, social services, Marbella ladies golf association, restaurant and private donors and Mission Basilica School to bring families registered with Serra’s Pantry Christmas gifts.

According to coordinator Rachel Wolven-Everett, all of the toys end up at one big warehouse and are separated by age group. Once separated, the toys are dispersed throughout Mission Basilica School’s gymnasium. There the registered families pile in to choose one toy from each specific section. The sections are based off of age and sex, ranging anywhere from guitars, bikes, kindle tablets, books, stuffed animals, footballs, purses, TV’s, action figures, you name it.

Santa was there, of course, taking pictures and saying “hello” to everyone. Volunteer Ricardo Leon shared what inspired him to help out.

“Just seeing kids that can’t afford these toys and just seeing them smile about it,” Leon said.  

A major contributor to making this all happen included the Girl Scouts providing home-baked goods, along with the Mission Basilica’s confirmation group members helping set up the event. With a lot of the families in need speaking Spanish, many of the confirmation members were bilinguals, helping them pick out and carry toys to the families’ cars.

After selecting the gifts, the families were then sent home with a Christmas turkey dinner, setting them up for a complete holiday. Longtime contributor of bikes Barbara Lehman explained what surprised her the most.

“I was surprised by the joy in these families,” Lehman said. “It’s just absolutely overwhelming what we do for them. You just get so much more gratification, personally, than you could do doing anything else. I love to do things for the poor. I like to be involved with things that either raise money or is do something for them.”

Toy drives are conveniently reachable when looking them up in your local community. If school and work overlap most free time, a simple donation of a toy can go a long way. More importantly than toys and food- is ones’ time. Having the idea that someone cares is enough for those in need, spending time with them, regardless of what is being done, is what it’s all about. Not all people have the money to make significant donations, but we can all figure out some time throughout the week to give back.