In 1986, Father Luis Valbuena, OMI, pastor of Holy Family Church in Wilmington, had an idea. He just needed the right person for the job. He approached Fernando Herrera, president of the Holy Name Society, with his plan.
“He said, ‘After the Mass on the second Saturday of the month, invite the people into the hall for a side lunch,’” said Herrera. Father Valbuena knew that many of the elderly people didn’t get out much during the week and didn’t have much social interaction.
He knew that Herrera had been a cook for about 15 years. He told Herrera that he was the perfect candidate for the task. That June, Herrera started Tercera Edad, a monthly meal ministry for the elderly.
Thirty years later, Herrera is still hard at work with a team of volunteers preparing the monthly luncheon.
Five years into the project, the Holy Name Society chapter dissolved, but Herrera soldiered on. He couldn’t abandon the elderly people.
“Three people stayed with me. It started with 50-60 people being served lunch. Little by little it started being 80, 90,” Herrera said. “I kept doing it and doing it. Some ladies started to help. Two ladies have been helping me for 26 years. We now serve about 120 people every month.”
It has become a major social event for the parish seniors. They come in wheelchairs. They come with walkers. They come to chat. They chat over the loteria numbers.
“It may be their only outing for the month and they are with friends and neighbors and they are very comfortable. He makes it a really nice event for them,” said volunteer Irene Rivas.
Herrera keeps it interesting by varying the meals. This coming May 14 will feature a special chicken mole meal to celebrate Mother’s Day. The day will also feature a group of folklorico dancers performing.
Father Valbuena, who currently resides in the San Fernando Valley, will return on June 11 to celebrate Mass and enjoy the official 30th anniversary celebration.
Herrera’s dedication is even more remarkable due to the fact that he has been battling various forms of cancer for 22 years. The cancer which had invaded his brain is now gone, but he is currently on chemotherapy pills to battle lung cancer.
“He’s ok,” says his wife Martha. “A little tired, a little run down, but he rests up so he can keep on going. Still there every month,” she added.
“There are times when he wants to quit, saying, ‘That’s it, I’m tired’,” Martha said. “I told him he can’t. The day he quits is the day that God says, ‘Come on, that’s it,’” she said.
“I try to give it to somebody else, but nobody wants it,” joked Herrera.
“He does a great job. He is very energetic and always very cheerful,” said Rivas. “We’re really happy that he has been able to do this all these years and to see his enthusiasm. I love volunteering with him.”
“It takes a special person to be able to deal with these different personalities. He likes everybody and they all really like him,” his wife said. “He is an example to other people. Don’t let your illness get you down, just keep on doing it.”