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Operation BBQ Relief, local restaurant provide 35,000 meals to homeless centers and those in need

Pulled pork, baked beans and mashed potatoes are among some of the menu items for the homeless Wednesday at St. Vincent de Paul Bakersfield, courtesy of Operation BBQ Relief.

The operation was enacted locally by a $154,000 donation by Dignity Health that enables 35,000 meals from the local restaurant Sonder to be served daily for the next two weeks at entities such as the Bakersfield Homeless Center, St. Vincent de Paul Bakersfield, The Mission at Kern County, and CityServe. Operation BBQ Relief is a non-profit based organization out of Kansas and Missouri that serves displaced individuals during disasters such as the COVID-19 outbreak.

“During extraordinary times, the extraordinary people of Bakersfield and Kern County rise up and work together,” said Bakersfield Mayor Karen Goh.

Deborah Leary, chairman of the board at St. Vincent de Paul Bakersfield, said she was contacted last week by Bakersfield Homeless Center CEO Louis Gill and Sonder owner Shannon Brown about the meal program. St. Vincent de Paul began getting meals from Sonder on Monday and Leary said the program has been “wonderful” for those they serve.

“They’re thrilled about the food,” Leary said. “Word spreads quickly if (the food) is in a styrofoam container and it’s hot.”

Charles Bobo, a homeless man who received a meal Wednesday, was thankful for the meal. Typical services provided by the homeless center have been impacted by COVID-19, he said.

“The virus closed things down (at St. Vincent de Paul) so there haven’t been any showers available in the morning or clothes to choose from,” Bobo said. “We used to get coffee and doughnuts in the morning.”

Bobo is an Arkansas native who moved to California to go to college in Visalia, he said. During Friday's meal, he said he was a fan of the pulled pork in particular.

Leary emphasized the center's services are strictly reserved for street homeless, or someone who lives on the streets and has no other temporary shelter. Leary said the center often has to turn people away who arrive in cars looking for a meal.

“We know people who live out of their cars, but unless we know the person, we’re not going to serve them if they arrive in a car that might be nicer than mine,” she said.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, St. Vincent de Paul has had to turn away volunteers who typically prepare meals for their clients. The center's six staff members are currently putting together 300 to 400 daily meals in assembly-line fashion, Leary said.

St. Vincent de Paul also had to close its thrift store, a primary source of revenue, indefinitely. The center doesn't receive federal or state funding and must rely solely on donations of goods or money.

With that, Leary said there's been an “amazing response” from the community over the past few weeks with donations coming in such as sandwiches, paper bags, tinfoil and tortillas.

“Bakersfield is just wonderful,” Leary said. “The response for anything we have needed is unbelievable.”

Leary said St. Vincent de Paul Bakersfield is still accepting donations, which can also be made online at svdpaulbakersfield.org.

“All money raised stays right here. It feeds the people and pays our staff,” Leary said.

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