There are a lot of unknowns in our world right now, but in East Oakland, a crew of people know exactly how to support their neighbors.

A group of women seek shade under a canopy as they wait to pick up groceries, diapers, and other essentials.

Dr. Cesar Cruz, his staff members, and a dozen volunteers with Homies Empowerment set up early for the weekly food distribution. By 8 a.m. they’ve handed out tickets for people to claim a place in line.

Half-a-block’s worth of tables are filled with canned goods, fresh vegetables, bags of rice and beans, and even some sandwiches from World Central Kitchen. Potatoes and bread from our Food Bank are among the items that will soon make their way to shopping carts and bags carried by the nearly 380 people served this day. Because most are shopping for their families, Dr. Cruz estimates more than 1,700 people will benefit from the distribution.

Dr. Cruz is the co-founder of Homies Empowerment, a nonprofit community development organization started in Oakland 11 years ago. They’re in the process of joining our network of agency partners. They’re one of many of our emergency response partnerships established during the pandemic in order meet an increased demand in communities, like East Oakland, that have been hit hard by the number of COVID-19 cases and the economic impacts of shelter in place orders.

Community Matters

Candles, artwork, and photos adorn an altar in the storefront office of Homies Empowerment.

Rogelio is in charge of inventory. During a tour of the storefront headquarters, he squeezes past a traditional Mexican altar and walls covered in photos. He points out shelves of canned goods and peanut butter at what they call their “freedom store.”

“This store has been going on since before COVID,” Dr. Cruz says. “But it was providing clothes, shoes, and books. And then it adapted under COVID-19.”

Before the distribution, Dr. Cruz gathers the volunteers in a large circle. The back of their T-shirts read, “It Takes a Barrio.”

He talks about resilience. This community may be facing hard times, he tells the group, but the people are resilient. “How we see a community matters,” he says. “I don’t see people in need in line. They are finding a way out of no way. They are coming to help themselves.”

Let’s Celebrate Each Other

Surya (left) and Estella (right) visit Homies Empowerment’s distribution for groceries for their families.

Surya and Estella hold ticket number 125 in the line. The two met on a previous visit to the distribution and now greet each other like sisters. Both are from small towns in Guatemala and have lived in Oakland more than a dozen years.

The pandemic has been hard on their families. They’re housekeepers and a lot of work has dried up since March.

“For now, we are here for the food because it is really tough to find a job in this time,” Estella says. “But we are thankful for the people helping here.”

By mid-morning a strong sun has burnt through the cloud cover and the line is moving briskly. Mothers with toddlers in tow and infants strapped on their backs find shade under canopies and colored umbrellas. Everyone is wearing masks as they patiently wait their turn to collect groceries and diapers.

Homies Empowerment volunteer, Helena Brantley offers fresh greens to a woman making her way past the produce table.

The volunteers, also in masks and some in plastic face shields, seem unfazed by the heat. Every thank you from the people in line generates a broad smile – detectable through the glint in volunteers’ eyes.

They’re accepting the invitation from Dr. Cruz at the morning circle. “Let’s celebrate each other.”