I wish more people did stuff like this (volunteering) because it changes your perspective about people in need. They’re just regular people like you and me or anyone else. Mary Cerutti, MOWSF volunteer
Meals on Wheels San Francisco volunteer, Mary Cerutti, pauses for a picture during her Home-Delivered Groceries packaging shift.
It’s 7:30 am on a sunny but brisk Wednesday morning at Meals on Wheels San Francisco’s (MOWSF) headquarters in Bayview. A small army of volunteers is busy parsing out broccoli, red and green bell peppers, and carrots into large bags all to the beat of Journey’s “Separate Ways,” which emits from a portable speaker perched on a table. Other volunteers are replenishing the assembly station with this week’s bounty of food; packages of chicken, rice, potatoes, squash, and oranges, ensuring that nothing slows down the bagging process. The goal today: create enough bags to deliver to homes of nearly 500 older San Franciscans in need.
All of this activity takes place in MOWSF’s small parking lot as part of its mostly volunteer-run Home-Delivered Groceries program which has been operating for nearly 10 years in partnership with the SF-Marin Food Bank. Seniors in San Francisco sign up through the Food Bank to receive fresh groceries weekly – food staples they might not otherwise be able to purchase due to financial constraints or the ability to physically go out and shop for food or go to a pantry.
When the Food Bank truck arrives at Meals on Wheels around 6:00 am with the pallets of food, so do about 25 volunteers including 71-year-old Mary Cerutti of San Francisco. This particular morning, she is on broccoli bagging duty with her friend Kathryn.
“The tricky part is getting each of these plastic recyclable bags open – it’s a pain in the neck,” says Mary who is masked and smiling with her eyes.
She doesn’t mind the challenge or task and has figured out how to rub the handles together of each bag to open it. She and Kathryn work as a team – Mary as bag separator and Kathryn as bag stuffer. Soon, the bagged broccoli travels down a rolling assembly line and volunteers add bell peppers, carrots, and onions making for a colorful mix of produce.
By 8:45 am, Mary and the first shift of volunteers, have filled hundreds of bags with 7,040 pounds of food, a light morning compared to the previous week’s 8,500 pounds. It’s now up to a different team of about 30 volunteers to load the groceries into their own vehicles, gather route sheets, and physically deliver the heavy bags that weigh between 15-20 pounds each, to hundreds of seniors on the program.
The MOWSF volunteers are a well-oiled machine – everyone has a role, a physical position on assembly, or other responsibility. All work in synchronized harmony in order to get the food bagged and delivered safely within a matter of hours.
Mary was initially introduced to Meals on Wheels four years ago by a work colleague at an all-girls Catholic High School in San Francisco, where she was as an Assistant Principal. She volunteered twice a month back then, riding along with drivers from several routes at the start, and then a route near her house opened up and so she and a fellow volunteer took it over.
It was this aspect of the volunteer job – delivering groceries and meeting the recipients of those groceries, that she found the most rewarding.
When she retired in 2018, she decided to donate her time weekly to the HDG program.
Today is a homecoming, of sorts, for Mary. When the pandemic began in March 2020, Mary, who has underlying health conditions, decided to put her volunteering activities on hold with Meals on Wheels and the SF Public library toy exchange program in order to stay safe. This, of course, also meant part of her social network was cut off.
“I live alone, and it was grim sheltering in place and not doing my regular activities,” Mary explains. “What kept me sane during the pandemic was going to the park every day – it’s a block away, and was one of the few things I could do that didn’t seem to pose a danger.”
Her 17-year-old cat kept her company throughout the pandemic as well. Sadly, he passed away in Feb. of this year. Mary is currently fostering a cat from the shelter.
Now, a little more than a year later and fully vaccinated, she is excited to get back to volunteering and seeing her Meals on Wheels friends. She hopes someday to return to delivering groceries. In that role, she enjoyed meeting many people on her route and taking the time to chat with them to hear their stories and compare shared experiences.
“As volunteers, we sometimes only see the hard aspects of clients’ lives,” explains Mary. “Many cannot get up and down the stairs or they have lots of medical issues. You see their problems and yet, each has such a wonderful life history to share. I wish more people did stuff like this (volunteering) because it changes your perspective about people in need. They’re just regular people like you and me or anyone else.”
It’s now 9:00 am and the last of the volunteers have left Meals on Wheels, cars loaded with groceries ready to be delivered across the City.
It’s time for Mary to take off. She’s already looking forward to returning next week and making a difference.
“There are so many people who fall through the cracks, but there’s still that tendency to focus on how awful it is for people without the things we all take for granted,” she says. “I want to say shut up and get up one day a week and just do it. Once you start doing this, it really is beneficial for all. I don’t think of myself as some do-gooder but I think there is a moral imperative to take care of one another. You owe your community (seniors) — they’re owed some basic dignity and to have their needs met.”
DID YOU KNOW?
The month of April is Volunteer Appreciation month. In 2020, Meals on Wheels San Francisco volunteers made a huge difference!