Updated: May 16, 2019
My two cloth tote bags fill up quickly after a volunteer brings me groceries in a green hand basket, the kind you usually use at a grocery store. This basket has been handed to me by a tall man with a bright smile. He has gathered up the groceries I selected by checking boxes on a half sheet of paper.
His eyes are kind as he asks “do you want a hot meal?”
“Sure” I say “I’ll take the beef stew.”
I wait at the counter as he walks to the back of the room, opens a hot box and selects a black plastic container of food.
This food is being provided to me for free by an organization called “Project Open Hand.” I qualify for this because I am currently being treated for breast cancer.
Once a week I seek parking in downtown Oakland, walk into a nondescript storefront and give the volunteer at the computer my name. That person hands me a half sheet of paper on a clipboard and a golf pencil. While sitting in a chair in a row that lines the wall, I check the boxes of what I’d like to receive. Bread, onions, milk, eggs, dried lentils, raviolis, and frozen chicken are some of the things that are available to me. It is enough groceries for one person for about 3 days and would cost maybe $30 or $40 at the store. With 5 people in my family this food helps lower the grocery bill a little but it’s the hot meal that I’m really here for. Any day that I don’t have to make myself lunch is a good day.
The friendly volunteer sets the hot meal on the counter while I fumble to pack up the other groceries. There is something about the kindness of the volunteers and the compassionate way they offer help that makes me feel exposed and vulnerable. I don’t know if this person knows why I am here, and he doesn’t seem to care. His compassion seems large enough to be the actual open hands that the project is named for and I am here to receive it.
He notices that the tote bags I've brought are full and says “let me give you a plastic bag for the hot one.” He reaches under the counter and pulls out a thin white plastic bag, struggling momentarily to open it. I could carry the hot food in my own open hand since the package is sealed but I can’t speak to say so. My voice is caught in the lump in my throat and my eyes are welling up while he uses the thumb and forefingers of each hand to pinch the plastic bag apart. “I got it!” he says cheerfully and our eyes meet.
“Thank you so much” I manage squeak out then beeline back to my van to sit in the driver’s seat and let it all go.