Catholic Worker Hospitality House of San Bruno - Providing meals and shelter in San Bruno, California.

Year in Review

by Ella Chatfield-Stiehler

We have never written a “Year in Review” piece at Catholic Worker Hospitality House, but I thought it would be a nice tradition to start, especially considering what a year 2020 has been.

While every year is filled with milestones, momentous events, and people coming and going, this year seemed to be flush with them.  And even though COVID was a major factor affecting our work this year, some of the major events at the shelter had nothing to do with the pandemic.

The first, and saddest, event was the loss of our long-time co-worker Christine Baker to cancer in early May.  In February, she informed us of her illness and impending operation.  When she went on sick leave we hoped that she would eventually return to work, but it soon became evident that she would not be returning to work and the only question was how much time she had left.  While we miss Christine everyday, her absence was especially noticed at our biggest event of the year, the annual Thanksgiving Dinner.  For over 15 years Christine was a major organizer of the event and my initial thought this year was, “How am I going to do this without Christine?”  The answer is simple – we adjust and go on the best we can.  It’s not the same without her, but other people have stepped up to fill the gap.

One of the people stepping up to fill the gap left by Christine’s passing is Mike DiCampli.  We have a long relationship with Mike spanning over fifteen years. We first met him as a guest at the dining room and shelter and for the past four years he and his wife Jennifer have been residents at our Second Ave. house.  When I started looking for someone to assist at the dining room and provide back up in case of my own absence, Mike was the first person to come to mind. He’s easy going and, considering his own past, is comfortable with and caring about those we serve.  I knew we would work well together as over the years we have often collaborated on house repair projects.  It has been such a help and comfort to me having Mike working with us.

Another loss we experienced this year was Judy Pena.  While Judy didn’t die, failing health has caused her to now reside in a care facility in Gilroy.  For twenty-four years Judy was a part of our life at Catholic Worker.  She was a long-time volunteer, worked as an overnight staff person at the shelter for a brief period, and when failing health prevented her from volunteering she was still a regular guest at the dining room.  For the past few years I would give her a ride home from the dining room every morning, whcih was always a pleasant time together (even if we had been arguing at the dining room).  Those of you who were familiar with Judy know that she could be a handful, but she was part of our community and is missed by all.

In February our long-time volunteer Lioba Moulton moved to Tracy to live with her sister.  For years Lioba would bring food to the dining room three to four mornings a week.  She definitely upped the quality of the food at the dining room, providing lots of hearty soup, scrambled eggs with hash, hot dogs, desserts, and other items she would either cook or receive in donations from the local Grocery Outlet.  While we greatly miss her food, we especially miss her loving presence which added so much to our dining room.

Dean, another long-time volunteer and former shelter staff person and resident at one of our houses, also had to stop working with us because of health issues that put him at great risk of contracting the virus.  But before he stopped volunteering, he came up with our new serving method. In early March we knew we could no longer be a sit-down dining room and had to serve food To-Go only. But how to do it?  My initial plan was to have guests come inside the dining room to the serving counter to get their food, but it was Dean who realized that was still unsafe.  It was his idea to have tables by the main door where one person at a time would come in (with mask on) to get their hot coffee, oatmeal, soup, sandwich, fruit, and what ever other food we had that particular day.  This has proved a safe and effective way to serve during the pandemic and is the model we used to host our annual Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. Again, we miss Dean’s presence at the dining room, but at least I still get to see him when I go by the Chapman house.

And then there was the COVID pandemic… Luckily none of the staff, volunteers, or shelter guests at Catholic Worker Hospitality House have gotten sick (or worse) with the virus.  And to the best of our knowledge none of our dining room guests have either.  Still, the pandemic has affected our work in many ways.

With the onset of COVID in March we lost practically all of our longtime volunteers. It made total sense for them to stop coming to the dining room as they were in the high risk group for COVID due to advanced years, underlying health issues, or both.  I found it touching when several volunteers told me they didn’t want to stop volunteering, but their adult children insisted on it.  My response was, “Look on the bright side, your children care enough about you that they want you to stay safe.  You should worry if they want you to continue getting in harms way!”

Still, we miss them dearly as most of our dining room volunteers had been part of our work for over ten years.  Part of what makes work fun for me is the people I work with.  I look forward to working with a different group of volunteers each day.  “It’s Wednesday, oh good! Lorraine, Barbara, Marie, and Dean will be in today. It’s Thursday.  Pitt, Terri, Lori, and Joanne will be in today.”  I now sometimes have a hard time remembering what day it is because we have the same volunteers everyday.  They all know that they are welcome back once the pandemic subsides and I look forward to their return.  But I realize some won’t be returning as advanced years (such as Lorraine in her mid-nineties) may mean the end of their volunteering days.  That is the sad part for all of us at the dining room.

But as is so typical of our work, when one group of volunteers fades out another steps forward.  Shelter staff now stay a little longer in the morning to assist until volunteers arrive; Danny and Emad are there everyday to serve and do dishes; Debbie still comes in once a week (the one old-time volunteer who didn’t have to drop off); and new volunteers have emerged to fill in the gaps.  Faces change, but the work continues.

Through it all your generosity has kept our work going.  Your kindness has enabled us to continue our existing work while responding to new needs and challenges presented by the COVID pandemic.  We thank you for all your support in 2020 and hope that you will continue helping us help others in 2021.

With much love and gratitude,

Peter Stiehler

For all of us at Catholic Worker Hospitality House