Thanksgiving in Silicon Valley: A mission to feed the needy
Ivan Diaz, 63, of San Jose, is seen at St. James Park on Nov. 24, 2022, just after loading up the table he was using to distribute meals to homeless people. Photo by Joseph Geha.

    Ivan Diaz spent the last couple nights in his backyard cooking 10 turkeys at a time in a large smoker.

    But the 63-year-old is not throwing a Thanksgiving extravaganza at his home in San Jose’s Seven Trees neighborhood. He was preparing the meat as part of a feast he and other volunteers whipped up to feed homeless people in local parks Thursday morning.

    “If we want things to change, you have to do it so other people see you, and hopefully they’ll do the same,” Diaz told San José Spotlight.

    A retired hot roofer, Diaz doesn’t have a lot of money to spare but he manages to spend some of it feeding Silicon Valley’s most vulnerable by preparing food he buys himself or gets donated from family, friends and local restaurants.

    Ivan Diaz, 63, of San Jose, hands a prepared Thanksgiving meal to a man in St. James Park on Nov. 24, 2022. Photo by Joseph Geha.

    He and a group of volunteers started their Thanksgiving morning in Roosevelt Park, serving dozens of hungry people out of big trays filled with hot turkey and gravy, and warm side dishes like yams and stuffing. He packed up the remaining food and distributed it to homeless people in downtown’s St. James Park.

    As poverty continues to grip residents living in one of the world’s wealthiest regions, the inequality gap between the rich and the poor widens. San Jose has tallied more than 6,000 homeless people and many more are a few paychecks away from the streets as they grapple with astronomical rents and cost-of-living.

    Many organizations this week handed out holiday-themed boxes of groceries and pantry items as well as prepared meals, trying to meet the growing need of thousands who struggle to afford food, rent and gas in pricey Silicon Valley.

    Diaz and his volunteers are one of several groups, including nonprofit and faith organizations, who come to places like St. James Park on Thanksgiving to offer hot meals to those in need.

    Kathy Vo, of San Jose, 46, owns KV Noodle near downtown. She prepared corn, chicken noodle soup, mashed potatoes, gravy, and turkeys to feed people at the park. She said her family has done this for eight years to help others and to remind her kids to be grateful for what they have.

    “Remind them to be thankful and to give. That’s the whole meaning of Thanksgiving,” Vo told San José Spotlight.

    Tom Le, left, serves a water and soda to Michael Benning, right, at St. James Park in San Jose on Nov. 24, 2022. Photo by Joseph Geha.

    Michael Benning, 62, was one of the people Vo served a meal to Thursday. Sitting on a utility box enjoying the meal, Benning said health problems keep him from working. He lives in a nearby apartment complex for formerly homeless people.

    “It takes a special person to come out here to serve those that are less fortunate,” Benning told San José Spotlight. “That takes a special person with a special heart. I’m very thankful and grateful, man.”

    Just down the curb from Vo, Drew Sanchez was working to set up a food line. Sanchez, 40, the director of The Fellowship Inc., said his nonprofit serves food and drinks in St. James Park every Thursday, with food provided by Martha’s Kitchen, a local soup kitchen.

    But with Martha’s Kitchen closed for Thanksgiving, Sanchez worked with Rob Snyder, who runs Change Recovery, a San Jose residential sober living program for men, to supply the food.

    Rob Snyder, of San Jose, displays the van full of food for a Thanksgiving meal volunteers from his Change Recovery group were serving to homeless people at St. James Park in San Jose on Nov. 24, 2022. Photo by Joseph Geha.

    Both men have been through hard times in their past.

    “We want to help. This is where we come from, all of us,” Snyder told San José Spotlight. “We come from the streets, drinking and using. All these guys are in recovery,” he said of his volunteers.

    Sanchez said he runs the weekly food events because God told him to do it.

    “A lot of people out here who are homeless get walked by every single day because of what they look like and because of the situation they are in,” Sanchez added.

    Robert Johnson is served a dinner roll during a Thanksgiving meal service by a volunteer from Change Recovery group at St. James Park in San Jose on Nov. 24, 2022. Photo by Joseph Geha.

    Homeless resident Robert Johnson, 50, arrived in San Jose from Florida a few days ago. He wanted to see California and needed a change of scenery.

    Standing in line to get a meal Thursday, Johnson said he just landed a job at an Amazon warehouse and plans to look for housing.

    “I’m very thankful to have people like this who are putting the time and effort in,” he said. “I definitely commend them for that.”

    A bit south of the park, volunteers with the nonprofit Loaves and Fishes distributed hundreds of meals at the Vietnamese Seventh Day Adventist Church. The nonprofit doles out hot meals in the church parking lot five days a week, but Thursday the group served a Thanksgiving meal of turkey with cranberry sauce, stuffing and vegetables.

    San Jose resident Benjamin Ortega came to the church with his mother, Emily Murillo, and his four kids.

    Ortega lived in Stockton for years but returned to San Jose two weeks ago to take a machining job. His family lives in a minivan, and he said the meal program has a deeper meaning for the kids.

    “Mainly for them, it’s a connection to the holidays,” said Ortega, 37. “For me, it’s the ability to feed my children, especially during these trying times.”

    From left, Benjamin Ortega talks to his kids Vayda, Micah and Aria while they eat a Thanksgiving themed meal from nonprofit Loaves and fishes at the Vietnamese Seventh Day Adventist Church parking lot. Photo by Joseph Geha.

    His mother is homeless and working with a nonprofit to secure housing. She took a couple meals from the church to bring them to friends at a nearby encampment.

    Ortega said with rising costs for gas, food and other essentials, a free meal for his family is a big help. “I’m not always without work, I have money, but you’ve got to pick and choose what you’re going to do for your day and it’s really tough,” Ortega said.

    Back at the windy St. James Park in downtown San Jose, Diaz became teary as he handed out food. He tells his son to remember that homeless people were children once, too, and someone might have led them astray.

    “When you see people suffering, you’ve got to want to help,” Diaz said, his voice breaking. “You’ve got to have heart, you’ve got to have feelings for people.”

    Contact Joseph Geha at [email protected] or @josephgeha16 on Twitter. 

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