“Here’s the crew,” Kim Williams exclaims this late weekday morning from her electric wheelchair. She reaches out with both arms to bear-hug a young man with Down Syndrome. “Charles, my baby. How you doing?”
“Tie your apron. Tie your apron,” she reminds gently.
She looks up at another young man. “Hi, Shawwwwnnn,” she says, drawing out his name.
“Hi, Barb. Come here, Eddie,” she says, as she keeps greeting the seven developmentally disabled men and two women by name and embraces.
“Okay, Israel, Barbara,” she says with a look, and the couple stop hugging each other.
Frank Gonzalez from the Wright Road Adult Day Program steps forward. “Are you guys ready?”
A few nod, but the rest are already headed for the folded-up banquet tables and plastic-seat chairs stacked against a side wall in the old cinder-block auditorium of what was St. Brigid School in South Los Angeles, right off Western at 52nd Street. But the closed parochial school’s site, now the parish hall, still houses a hot meal program every Wednesday noon for an eclectic mix of homeless, street denizens and elderly.
Soon the place is a noisy explosion of tables being unfolded and chairs clanging together and slid across the floor. The nine-member team works in unison like synchronized swimmers, not asking any questions or even talking to each other. And by 11:30, the old auditorium has been transformed into a working dining room.
A line of serving tables has also been set up along with two side tables for cups of red punch and pieces of frosted chocolate cake. “Hey, Tim,” Kim says to a young man in a gray hoodie. “Go make the punch. Get the fruit punch container and sodas like we did last time in the cupboards.”
Charles, meanwhile, is double stacking Styrofoam plates at the beginning of the serving line, building leaning white mini-towers.
“That’s my baby, Charles,” Kim tells a visitor. “He’s just a sweetie. He just has this warm personality, you know, and he has this little cute baby smile. Timmy, now he’s my song bird. He sings so pretty. And Angie over there has on Danny’s black apron. We’ve got dating couples.” She chuckles, motioning them over.
“It’s fun helping the homeless,” says Tim.
Charles is nodding.
And Angie declares, “We serve the homeless. I give them the dessert. I like this job, yes I do. I’m passing out the juices and cake at the same time.”
Edward, who’s wandered by, explains how this work is an important part of their day program, adding that he’ll soon be 31 on his birthday. “Yeah, I like working here,” he says. “We come here to eat, cook, clean — everything.”
Workers from the Wright Road also come to St. Brigid on Mondays to unload goods from the Los Angeles Food Bank truck. And once a month, they put together bags of foods that are given to needy families and individuals. It’s all part of the work of the urban parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society’s conference.
Kim has been conference president for eight years. When she took over, members were doing 50 cold lunches a week. Now it’s up to 200 — and it’s the only regular hot-lunch in the impoverished community.
“Our sign out front says, ‘We feed the hungry,’” she points out. “For some, this is the only time they get a hot meal all week long. And there’s a lot of seniors, too. They come from all over, all the way down from Manchester. Everybody knows about us.
“I have a thing about leftovers,” she admits. “It’s just me personally. I hate serving leftovers. So I had to revamp the program. And that was a hard struggle with everything being fresh and cooked. Then the word got out. We do Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter, too, plus for Mother’s and Father’s Days a special luncheon. And we have a backyard barbecue in the summer, combining the 4th of July with Labor Day.”
That — plus her other volunteer duties as district president, including home visits, and being a board member of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Council of Los Angeles — would be a full plate for any able-bodied retiree. (She worked 20 years in accounting, first with a bank and later doing corporate accounting and operations.)
But Kim does all this from an electric wheelchair since her right leg was amputated below the knee more than a decade ago. While visiting relatives in Birmingham, Alabama, she came down with a flesh-eating staph infection that led to gangrene by the time she got back to Los Angeles.
Today, she has a hard time putting any weight on her other foot, too, because of bone problems and an ulcer that won’t heal. So the 52-year-old woman is essentially wheelchair-bound. She doesn’t like to dwell on that, or the phantom and physical nerve pain she suffers daily. And while she lives with her mother in Baldwin Hills, she usually takes public buses to get to St. Brigid two or three times a week.
“I was always busy doing stuff for other people,” she says, after maneuvering the wheelchair between tables like an Olympic skier on a slalom course. “It’s just, this is more regular work. At first it was traumatic losing my leg. But then it was like, ‘Let me get to my conference duties.’
“And now it’s no big deal.”
But at least two people here in the auditorium on this Wednesday noon believe what Kim Williams does is, in fact, really special. “She takes the bus down to St. Vincent’s; she takes the bus everywhere,” says her mother, Maudelle Williams. “We call that her ‘Cadillac.’ No, she doesn’t wait for you.
“I was so sad when she first lost her leg. Then her other foot gives her so much problem, ’cause she has a nurse come every day, she goes every week to the doctor. See, nothing stops her. She lost her son Nicolas to an epileptic seizure five years ago. But she bounced back. She’s got to keep going. She’s the caregiver from her heart. I’m very, very proud of her.”
Josephite Father Michael Okechukwu, pastor of St. Brigid, points out how it’s not easy running a food program like Kim has for eight years. It means week after week making sure food deliveries are on time and the food is hygienically prepared, volunteers are there ready to work and the homeless and elderly get served with genuine respect.
“I think she’s done an awesome job, and is doing an awesome job in keeping this going for so long,” says Father Okechukwu. “She’s someone who is committed, someone who definitely has a focus on what needs to be done and does everything for the people she serves.
“She doesn’t let her own problems slow her down. The fact that, you know, she’s in a wheelchair isn’t in any way — at least from what I see — a hindrance or a factor in what she does. And she does what she does because she has a heart that is loving and a heart that is giving.”
‘In and out’
At 11:45, the volunteer St. Vincent de Paul cooks, 83-year-old Mack and Leland, 76, along with their helper Danny, bring out long metal serving trays of chicken, rice, potato salad and corn and peas. Soon a buffet line of homeless and elderly, including some members of the parish, are having their plates piled with food by folks from the Wright Road. They eat fast, with most heading out the door in 30 minutes. Tim hands many another cup of punch before they return to the street. A few walk up to Kim in her wheelchair to offer their thank you's.
Charles starts wiping down the serving tables with a wet cloth. Others break down tables, stacking chairs with the same intensity they put them up with. Garbage cans on wheels are emptied. The floor is swept, then mopped. Inside the kitchen, dishes are washed and stacked.
Members of the developmentally disabled crew now come by Kim to say goodbye and get a second hug. After, she slouches back in her wheelchair, surveying the empty room.
“They’ve got to clean up fast,” she explains. “Well, they have to be back and eat their lunch by 1:45, ’cause their day program ends at 2 o’clock. So we get them in and out.”