Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Mother Brown's Soup Kitchen

A real-life Christmas story to warm your heart, from today's San Francisco Chronicle. This is one beautiful way to celebrate Christmas...by serving others, out of gratitude for God's gifts to your life.

Mother Brown's soup kitchen began with Barbara Brown handing out homemade meals to homeless people from the trunk of her Cadillac Seville in San Francisco's downtown and Fillmore district. More than 20 years later, Brown's modest food program has grown into the United Council of Human Services, which feeds about 6,000 people a month from its permanent location on Jennings Street in the Bayview.

This year, staff members are collecting hundreds of toys to be distributed to needy local children and for the annual Christmas feast. But for the first time, they're without the presence of their founder, who has been hospitalized for much of the year.

"I'll still be working from my hospital bed," Brown, 61, said in a telephone interview from her room at Kaiser Medical Center in South San Francisco, where she was undergoing treatment for a blood disorder.

Supporters credit Brown's organization with bringing needed services to the Bayview-Hunter's Point community and providing jobs and housing to area residents.

The 23-year-old organization will hold its fifth annual Christmas party today at the Bayview Opera House, where it expects to distribute more than 1,200 toys, said interim chief executive Gwendolyn Westbrook. More than 800 toys were donated by a Marine Corps unit out of San Bruno.

One of the organization's newest ventures is Hope House, a program that rents homes for the chronically homeless. It's part of Mayor Gavin Newsom's Care Not Cash program. Hope House, which started in June, has already provided housing for 35 people, and eventually hopes to house 70 people, Westbrook said.

Westbrook said staffers miss Brown but want her to rest and not try to rush back to work too soon. "She's a little dynamo," Westbrook said. "She cares so much."

Brown was born in Shreveport, La., the daughter of a Baptist preacher who taught her how to care for others. The family moved to the Bay Area when she was 5 years old as part of the World War II migration of African Americans to work in the local shipyards.

Brown grew up in the Bayview, married and raised three children while working at a number of clerical and administrative jobs, including at the San Francisco Newspaper Agency, the entity that oversaw joint business dealings of The Chronicle and the formerly Hearst Corp.-owned San Francisco Examiner.

Over the years, Brown saw the devastating impact gangs and drugs had on her community. In response, she began making meals to give to those in need.

"Oh, my goodness, they ate good," Brown said with a chuckle, recalling the dishes she served out of her car. "We'd make things like red beans and rice, ham hocks, greens. We'd even do catfish," she said. "I never would have thought that I'd be doing this (all these years)."

The center serves as a gathering point for the homeless, where they can shower, do their laundry and put their belongings in secure lockers. There's also a recreation area with a big-screen television. Joyce Vaughn, 49, began working at the center three years ago after being laid off from her job at Levi Strauss. Vaughn admits she was initially scared of the people who visited the center.

"At first, it was rough because I had never been exposed to that kind of lifestyle," said Vaughn, who works in the kitchen and as a dinner server. "It just showed me another side of the world I'd never seen before," she said. "It's a condition I could be in, or any of us for that matter."

Vaughn said Brown has made a difference to countless people. "This is really a good thing she's doing for this community," she said.

Brown still speaks with passion about the center's accomplishments and future, and hopes to rejoin her staff in the near future. "I just know that there's always going to be hungry people," Brown said, "and there will always be a need for Mother Brown's."

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