For thousands of families in Contra Costa County, hunger is a constant threat. The California Association of Food Banks estimates that 1 in 5 people in Contra Costa County do not know when or where their next meal is coming from. Additionally, with rising inflation, many low-income families are finding it increasingly difficult to meet their monthly needs for food and other basics. All across the county, however, local residents are refusing to allow their neighbors to suffer and go hungry. The St. Vincent de Paul of Contra Costa County Conference (branch) at Holy Rosary Church in Antioch is one group of volunteers making a difference.
Multiple times each week, volunteers from the SVdP Holy Rosary branch help feed their neighbors in Antioch. Throughout the week, a dedicated group of (mostly retired) volunteers, affectionately self-named “The Geezer Gang,” pick up donated food, sort it into bags and distribute it to their neighbors in need.
“We have an amazing group of really dedicated people,” Romy Myszka, one member of The Geezer Gang said. “We have a solid core group of volunteers in their 80s and 90s. Being in my 70s I’m one of the spring chickens in the group.”
Each week, Romy and his wife Linda, meet a group of their friends at the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Antioch. It is here that the Food Bank of Contra Costa & Solano drops off food that local charitable organizations have ordered, as well as extra food the Food Bank puts out to help feed the community. Romy and his fellow volunteers line up and grab the heavy bags and boxes of food, while Linda takes her spot inside the bed of her and Romy’s truck to organize the food so it can be transported safely.
“I started volunteering because my husband said he was going to, and I could either come along or sit at home,” Linda said. “Once you’re here, you can watch all these different organizations working to help people, and to help each other. It’s really moving, and it’s made it hard for us to stop!”
Linda and Romy are met at the Food Bank’s drop off location by their friends and fellow member of The Geezer Gang, SVdP volunteers Bob Franchetto and John Seviere. Bob helps collect and distribute food at SVdP’s Holy Rosary branch, as well as helps distribute food to veterans in need at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Antioch. John not only helps out with SVdP food distributions, but also helps maintain the Holy Rosary Church community garden, where vegetables are grown and provided at no-cost to anyone in the local community. “I started getting more heavily involved with SVdP in late 2019,” John said. “I’ve been blessed in my life with a lot of great things, and it feels good to be able to give something back to help people.”
Bob has been a part of the Antioch community since 1947, when he opened his florist business across the street from Holy Rosary Church. Unlike the bulk of “The Geezer Gang,” Bob is not retired. He still works as a florist at the same shop he opened in 1947, though now he works for his daughter Paula, who runs the business.
“Communities like Pittsburg and Antioch get a bad rep, but there is a lot of goodness in these communities that isn’t spoken of,” Bob said. “I started volunteering when a man named Joe McKenna talked me into it. He had a knack for convincing people who could help their community to get involved. It’s been surprising how many people want to help people in need, and it’s really rewarding to be able to help someone and know you’ve made a material difference in their life. You can give food to the hungry, distribute coats when it’s cold, it’s really rewarding.”
Though “The Geezer Gang” are all over the age of 70, they show no signs of slowing down. After organizing the food they were picking up in Romy’s truck, they deliver it to Holy Rosary Church and then bring it to people in the community who are suffering from hunger.
“We all have our own networks,” Romy said. “And we’re here every Thursday, except for Thanksgiving, but we still do distributions around Thanksgiving as well!”
Romy said one of the best aspects of “The Geezer Gang” volunteers at Holy Rosary is the expertise each individual volunteer brings. He said each volunteer is able to make the SVdP branch as a whole better, by making their operations more impactful, or more efficient.
“We have one volunteer, Frank, he’s a retired grocer,” Romy said. “He has such an understanding of what can fit in a grocery bag, that he’s set up an entire system for how we load the bags we provide to our neighbors. His system makes sure we’re giving people the absolute maximum amount of food we can fit in a bag, and it works. If we deviate from Frank’s plan, we just can’t fit as much food in. He’s an amazing volunteer.”
Steve Krank, Vincentian Services Manager at SVdP, said the SVDP community of volunteers involved at Holy Rosary in Antioch is truly amazing.
“During the pandemic, the volunteers at SVdP’s Holy Rosary branch didn’t just step up to the plate to help with food, they’ve been helping with rental assistance to keep families in their homes, and PG&E bills that let families keep the lights on,” Steve said. “They aren’t alone, either. The community at St. Ignatius Church in Antioch has partnered with them to help provide resources, and the local Knights of Columbus are always a huge help to the community.”
Steve said the president of SVdP’s Holy Rosary branch, Larry Hopwood, is an incredibly community focused person.
“The president at Holy Rosary, Larry, is an old-school, retired Antioch cop,” Steve said. “He cares so much about his community, and you can tell when you visit the team at Holy Rosary, that care and commitment to helping the poor permeates through the entire group.”
Hunger may still be an issue in Contra Costa County, but volunteers like “The Geezer Gang” at SVdP’s Holy Rosary branch, are making an impact in the fight against hunger. Together we can end poverty one person, one family, one community at a time.