Andrea Bauer gathers a group of two dozen San Antonio Food Bank volunteers from the lower parking lot of the Alamodome. A radio on her hip, she leads them through a maze of open corridors to Lot B, where hundreds of cars are already lining up.
It’s distribution day when, every Tuesday or Friday, the SAFB passes out food to local families in need. Only, a special surprise for the 1,500 families receiving 150 pounds of food each: a frozen holiday turkey, courtesy of a sponsorship from Bank of America.
The night before such events, SAFB volunteers and staff load the trucks up from the warehouse, Chief Resource Officer Michael Guerra said. SAFB staff and lead volunteers arrive the earliest to direct the other volunteers, he explained.
“The cars come through with their trunk popped open, and volunteers load food in at each station, so it might be bread at one stop then fruit at another, then milk at the next,” Guerra said.
Overseeing the volunteers is Mendy Escamilla, director of volunteer services. Escamilla said cars usually start lining up around 7 a.m., and some volunteers devote their time to helping direct cars into lanes. Having worked at the SAFB for more than four years, Escamilla said she loves the energy and spirit of the volunteers.
“Without them none of this would be possible,” she said. “For someone to donate their time – the most valuable resource we all have – that’s really special.”
Bauer takes her group of volunteers over to one of the eight marked-off drive-thru lanes where palettes of cabbage, milk, squash, bread, and donuts and cakes are stacked. Some of the volunteers in her group are first-timers, Bauer said, while others are long-time SAFB volunteers. She makes quick work of assigning two or three volunteers each to the 11 stations, warning them the cars will start driving through in about 20 minutes.
Several forklifts move around the lot, adding last-minute additions to palettes around the eight identical drive-thru lanes. In other lanes, volunteers lounge under tents waiting to start handing out items.
Helping Bauer direct everyone is Jerry Jackson, another yellow-vested lead volunteer. Some volunteers have been at the Alamodome since 6:30 a.m., Jackson said, noting that the four white trucks with “San Antonio Food Bank” decals arrived at the lot around 6 a.m. to start unloading the palettes of food. An Army veteran, Jackson said he has volunteered in as many distribution events as he can since the pandemic began.
“There’s a lot of needs in our community right now,” Jackson said. “The food bank gets so many amazing volunteers. We have a great synergy working together out here.”
Promptly at 9 a.m., SAFB volunteers start directing the cars through. Moving quickly, volunteers ask drivers if they’d like certain items before loading them carefully into the trunks. The hurried throng of people and cars finds a rhythm, and the lines move steadily.
Walking around the event is food bank President and CEO Eric Cooper. Cooper waves hello to several familiar faces, occasionally stopping to speak with a member of his staff or to help load food into a vehicle.
“Our volunteers are truly our heroes,” Cooper said. “Since the pandemic began, they’ve been all about being selfless to help their neighbors above themselves.”
With administrative overhead kept to 2 percent of the SAFB budget, the SAFB has a lot of need for volunteers, especially since the pandemic, and San Antonio has stepped up to meet the challenge, Cooper said.
Having served more than 625,000 people in total since March – or one of every four people in the South Texas region – volunteers are appreciated even more these days, Cooper said. Currently, more than 120,000 people are receiving weekly assistance, more than double the number of clients served before the pandemic.
The food bank averages about 1,000 volunteers per week, Cooper said.
“They’re out here to an extent taking a risk to help,” Cooper said. “We follow all the CDC protocols and all of that, but they’re out here helping when they could be home, and we’re so thankful for them.”