By TERESA HAMMOND
Thanksgiving is one day that is different from other days around St. Mary’s Dining Room. While it may be the one day the Stockton based agency receives the most publicity for the single meal they serve, it is the other 364 days out of the year which makes it so unique.
Located beneath the freeway, the 545 W. Sonora St. campus served close to 400,000 meals in 2015 to the homeless as well as those in need. The campus was first founded as a dining hall in a smaller facility in 1955 by Father Alan McCoy. The words “more than meals” now follow the founding name and that it is. The St. Mary’s campus now offers its clients a dining room serving three hot meals per day, a dental clinic, medical clinic, clothing and hygiene center and social services department. The campus also hosts space for a Head Start program offering pre-school services to children under the age of five. All services are free to those in need of their services without sufficient means.
“There still remains a lot to be done for the population that we serve,” St. Mary’s Dining Room CEO Edward Figueroa said of the non-profit. “We’re always thinking what more can we do.”
Figueroa shared his personal story of growing up with a single mom, in poverty and moving regularly. It was a life experience which led him to what is now his passion for helping the homeless and working poor improve their lives.
“Every day we get to see faces and we know we’re going to be able to provide them with a meal,” he continued. “We’re able to do that three times a day, seven days a week.”
The mission of St. Mary’s states: “St. Mary’s Dining Room responds to poverty in San Joaquin County by feeding the hungry, caring for health issues and restoring human dignity to over 700 individuals each day.”
“It’s not that big number that motivates myself or our staff,” Figueroa said of the number the campus serves each year. “I think it goes back to knowing we’re going to be able to provide them a nutritious meal, offer them a medical clinic, a dental clinic … all free of charge. That’s what motivates us.”
St. Mary’s has over 40 people on staff for its varying services and relies heavily on volunteers. Volunteers are very much needed on the campus, not just in the way of food service but medical, dental and social services as well.
“We don’t turn anybody away,” Rebecca Glissman, director of development, said of the dining hall. “Are you hungry? Then come on in.”
Glissman stated that certain times of the month the dining hall sees an increase at dinner time, noting that families use their services to help stretch their limited income.
“Food insecurity is more than just not knowing,” she said. “It’s also not having money for nutritionally adequate food. In San Joaquin County 111,000 people live in poverty, 54,000 are kids.
“We always want to be sure and serve good healthy food,” she continued.
The Social Services Department and Clothing and Hygiene Center offer clients an opportunity to begin rebuilding their life, but that takes time.
“Most of our clients, almost all, aren’t used to receiving something with no expectation,” Glissman said. “That’s a big challenge. It can take weeks, even months to earn that trust.”
Director of Social Services Mercedes Moreno is testament to the benefits of earning that client trust. Moreno herself was once a client. Prior to accepting the help of St. Mary’s Dining Hall, she struggled with addiction and life on the streets.
“I can go on and on about what this agency did for me,” Moreno said, “but the most important thing is nobody judged me. The just accepted me and mainly they believed in me.”
Now two decades later, Moreno is clean and paying forward the humanity and good graces that were extended to her through helping clients daily.
“We want them to know that no matter what’s going on outside those gates,” she said, “they can always walk in here and there’s going to be somebody here that’s going to listen to them.”
As for the Thanksgiving meal that the campus is known for, Glissman offers this thought: “We don’t need help that day. We typically end up turning volunteers away. We have families that have done this for years. Instead I tell them, stay home, enjoy Thanksgiving with your family and come help us serve one of the three meals the next day or day after. That’s what we really need, help serving our clients every day after.”