Volunteer Day at St. Anthony’s

Once a year, Chronicle Books employees take a day to volunteer at a local non-profit. This year we went to St. Anthony’s, an organization located in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco that provides a host of important services to homeless and low-income families and individuals. These offerings include a dining room where almost 3,000 meals are served every day of the year; a free clothing program that provides warm clothes, employment apparel, and children’s clothes; a medical clinic, and much more. We asked some Chronicle staffers for reflections on what they experienced in this remarkable place, starting with the day’s coordinator. 

Taylor (served in the dining room)
Assistant Editor, Children’s

We thought it was important to find a place where we could connect closely with members of our San Francisco community. There aren’t many places that can take such a large group (usually around 90 people from the company attend) but we reached out to St. Anthony’s to see if they would be willing to host us. They were amazing and worked to tailor their Group Volunteer Program specifically to a group of our size. It was a great way to give back to the city we love so much, and it was also fun to spend time with people within the company who we don’t normally get to work with.

My group collected trays of food from the kitchen and distributed them to patrons. The first dining shift was reserved for elderly or infirm patrons, so we delivered the food to them at their tables, taking the tray to the patron and then getting back in line to do it again. Patrons who wanted more food got a paper ticket—no limit on how many—and hold it up to indicate they needed another tray. The second shift served able-bodied patrons, who lined up for the tray themselves while we continued to serve the elderly.

Waiting to serve at St. Anthony's

The organization, just in the kitchen alone, was incredible. Every single person who needed a meal got a meal—and each meal included a protein, a carb, a piece of fruit, a high-calorie drink, and a starch. They were even able to accommodate vegetarians. The staff plans out the menus months in advance, and so much of the planning involves figuring out how to create a sufficient amount of food. They also have to coordinate the volunteers so that there’s a specific person assigned to every single task. The logistics alone were mind-boggling.

So many of the patrons were wonderful to talk to. I poured juice/water for a while and loved having the chance to talk to everyone who came up. They seemed to like to talk as much as I did, and many of them had stories. There were a lot of jokes about serving them the finest house red (which was actually cranberry juice). One thing the St. Anthony’s staff reminded us of was how meaningful an actual human gaze can be. It’s easy to keep your eyes fixedly ahead when you walk by someone on the street. But a small gift you can give a person is just an acknowledgement of their existence.

I also appreciated getting wonderful glimpses into the tiny communities in that dining hall. I ate lunch between two men, neither of whom said a word. But every time the first man got a new tray, he’d roll his piece of fruit—apple, orange, whatever—to the other man. It was this great silent friendship.

It was remarkable how many patrons were unremarkable. So many were people I wouldn’t know, by passing them, were homeless or struggling or in need of food. It was yet another reminder of how pervasive poverty is, how many people it affects, and how no one is exempt from potentially needing help like this.

Lara (assisted in the clothing store)
Senior Publicist, Children’s

I worked in the free clothing store, helping ladies find clothes that fit their bodies and their needs. I shared a lunch table with an older lady, a former dental assistant, who chatted about her life and challenges.

I was unprepared for the gratitude from the guests I interacted with. Not in an obsequious way. No one thanked me for being there, or demonstrated any lack of self-worth, but they all expressed gratitude for what was good in their lives. The older lady who has beaten cancer, survived both a plane crash and a car accident, and relies on St. Anthony’s for food was grateful to “be here,” and hopes for an opportunity to contribute herself. The ladies at the free clothing store were grateful for warm hoodies, a place of their own to live, backpacks, and jeans.

Sorting clothes at St. Anthony's

Alice (prepared food)
Senior Designer

I worked in the prep kitchen and peeled and sliced 50 pounds of onions! (I got to use an industrial-sized robot coupe, which was pretty cool.) It was really impressive to see the sheer size of the kitchen operation there and how many people they serve on a daily basis.

Christine (sorted clothing)

I weeded through clothing people had kindly donated to the Foundation, harvesting those items that were in good enough shape to be shared with their clients. (Everything else gets recycled.) That night I went home and got to work on the donation bag I’d forgotten to take with me that morning. Out went anything bearing a stain, needing a bit of mending, or smelling of eau du closet. And out came the iron to dash away creases, since so many of St. Anthony’s clients don’t have irons. I learned the importance of dressing with dignity.

St. Anthony's

Julia (assisted in the clothing store)
Sales Manager, Special Markets

I was excited to be stationed in the clothing store at St. Anthony’s, where I got to help their guests comb through the racks to find items they needed—from jackets and shirts to shoes and blankets. This experience showed me the power of positivity; although the St. Anthony’s guests we met were going through tough times, many of them were warm and kind, had big smiles on their faces, and were appreciative and excited about the new items they were picking up. It was a pleasure to work with them!

Stephanie (adult day care)
Marketing Manager, Lifestyle

I learned that eye contact and a smile go a long way! It feels good to have a human connection with people.

Food preparation at St. Anthony's

Tim (adult day care)
National Sales Manager Specialty Sales

I was part of a group of five that spent the day at the St. Anthony’s Adult Day Care. Upon arriving, we were asked to go around and say good morning to everyone that was there, about 40 seniors that show up every Monday through Friday for the day. Part of the day was spent playing heated games of Othello, the group’s most beloved game. I must have played five rounds with a sweet guy who had suffered a stroke. He kicked my ass. In between Othello matches, the five of us were asked to go to the front of the room and lead the entire group in the Chicken Dance, YMCA (they added several twists to their version), and daily exercises.

Tyrrell (prepared food)
Vice President, Sales and Marketing

I thought the day was really inspiring, especially given all the people who walk through the doors of St. Anthony’s each day looking for assistance. My assignment for the morning was food prep in the kitchen. Given the number of meals the organization serves, I was happy to help prepare an enormous amount of food to be cooked for later that week (specifically cutting ham off the bone and into bite-size cubes). What was so shocking was the amount of work it required and how little we accomplished over the course of 3-4 hours. How do they keep up with the demand? The staff at St. Anthony’s was a great group of people. It was a good reminder of the many people in this world who devote their careers and professional lives to caring for others. It is not an easy path to take; those who do are truly special.

St. Anthony’s depends on their over 11,000 volunteers to do this important work. Learn how to get involved. 

Kathryn Jaller

Kathryn Jaller

Previous Associate Director of online strategy at Chronicle Books and art/craft/cat lady. You can follow her at @kholler.
Kathryn Jaller

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