Life has been difficult for Andrea Turner. In the last few years, she’s moved from one friend’s house to another. That is, when she wasn’t homeless.
“There’s been times when I wasn’t able to survive financially, moments I lost money living on the streets,” Turner said. “I didn’t know where I was going to get a meal, I couldn’t afford to go shopping.”
In recent months, Turner found peace of mind, and as much food as she could carry on her bicycle, behind the gym at St. Norbert Catholic Church in Orange.
Every Saturday, the steady stream of cars grows longer. Grandparents, single mothers, two-family households and more receive a week’s worth of food courtesy of the church’s food distribution program administered through its Christian Service ministry. Families share photos of their grandchildren, talk about struggles with a sickly parent and other personal challenges in their lives.
At the center of the program is Michelle Navarro, who coordinates donations from Second Harvest Food Bank, Mary’s Kitchen, Ralphs, La Reina Markets and OC Bakery. She’s able to secure enough food for nearly 100 families every week—milk, eggs, dried foods, frozen meat and hundreds of loaves of bread. A grant covers the cost of fresh vegetables from Ingardia Brothers Produce, and once a month, families can pick up diapers.
The weekly rotation of 30-plus volunteers includes a constant group of longtime parishioners, including Elsa Erdkamp, who shows up at 8 a.m. to help set out tables and chairs before joining her friends—ages 65 to 85—sorting corn tortillas and bags of rice and beans in addition to filling treat bags with snacks from the parish community for the kids who pass through. She’s been working with Christian Service for more than 40 years.
“This church is a special place, they help with a lot of people,” Erdkamp said.
Erdkamp knows what it’s like to have nothing and need everything. She immigrated from Peru 60 years ago and has been thankful for her life here, choosing to give back by feeding the homeless at various churches and shelters.
Thirty-five years ago, volunteer Bob Cebula dropped off his two sons at St. Norbert to earn service hours for Confirmation. He has returned almost every week since.
In fact, when the pandemic hit last spring, the church furloughed most of its staff and shut down food distribution— at least officially. Cebula and a few others continued to pick up donations from Ralphs and cobble together whatever else they could get donated. On Saturdays, they’d fill about 40 paper bags and leave them on the steps of the gym.
Asked how word got out, Cebula smiled and said, “People just knew.”
In February, the parish announced food distribution would return. That first weekend, about 30 families showed up. The numbers steadily rose, but volunteers started to wane when summer hit.
An urgent call for help ensued and campus ministries at Servite and Rosary responded. Dozens of students, and even some of their parents, continue to sign up.
“Volunteers are returning, and the families are so grateful and thankful,” Navarro said. “They can’t see us smiling with our masks on, but we are.”