“Son, can I take your shopping cart?” asked Mike Pence.
No, I wasn’t in the District of Columbia. Rather, I was in the parking lot of the FoodMaxx on Chester Avenue and Columbus Street. The Bakersfield senior who approached me shared the vice president’s name, as well as his confident and dignified demeanor. However, our Mike Pence had a strikingly unique quality that embodied his resilience: He was missing a leg. I quickly surrendered my shopping cart and made sure to inform him of Relief Shoppers, a program that offers grocery delivery to seniors and immunocompromised individuals at no extra cost. Mike was thrilled by the concept and eagerly scribbled my number on his notepad. After a short yet heartwarming conversation, I learned that Mike was a proud resident of Mill Creek Village.
At the onset of the pandemic, Relief Shoppers was my hope of answering an urgent need for our vulnerable population. Our volunteers now deliver groceries and essentials to all corners of Bakersfield, but the program has found a niche in Mill Creek Village, an apartment complex on 18th Street that offers affordable housing to seniors. Mike is the perfect representation of the residents of the village: independent, neighborly and unbelievably tough. His handicap made life twice as difficult, but his grit and gratitude more than made up for his lost limb. Disability is not uncommon in the village, but never does it cripple the villagers’ spirits.
The village welcomes all. Whenever I enter the lobby, I am met by lounging village ladies with greetings and laughter as warm as the Bakersfield summer sun. With these clients, small talk so often turns into an exchange of life stories. Every day, Relief Shoppers becomes more embedded into the culture of Mill Creek Village. In fact, two residents have become some of our most devoted volunteers. Villagers Tinker Bell and Jennifer Learo have dedicated their free time to introducing their neighbors to the program. They have gone so far as to schedule me as an unofficial TED Talk speaker in the renowned Mill Creek Village lobby, and they have recently helped me organize a lovely group picture with village residents and the Relief Shoppers family.
On the day I planned to call Mike and invite him to the group picture, Jennifer informed me of his passing. Gloom and frustration overcame me — if only I had called a day earlier, I could have spoken to him one last time. “He was so eager to be a part of the photo,” Jennifer added. Through the beauty of community, my words had already found their way to Mike.
Access to grocery delivery has the power to change lives. Through unity, resilience and empathy — virtues so characteristic of Mike and his village — I hope to nurture a future in which Relief Shoppers continues to alleviate issues of immobility, nutritious food insecurity and isolation among our most vulnerable community members.
We all belong to our own villages. It is our duty to support our neighbors who may be standing on one limb.
Ulysis Baal is an immigrant from his own village of Bato, Camarines Sur, Philippines. Raised in Bakersfield, he graduated from Bakersfield High School and UCLA in 2015 and 2019, respectively. As the current director of Relief Shoppers, he hopes to see the service thrive long after the COVID-19 pandemic. With the continued support of Stewards Inc., Kern County Aging & Adult Services, his parents, amazing teammates, community donors and your prayers, he believes his vision is realistic. The views expressed are his own.