River of Life volunteers count themselves lucky
By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Mike Gordon
In the noisy dining room at the River of Life Mission, Frank Stover could hear echoes of his youth — of a time, decades past, when he was just as hungry as the homeless men and women who gathered yesterday for a Christmas meal.
Now a 59-year-year-old certified public accountant from 'Ewa Beach, Stover left his family's Georgia farm when he was 15. He worked as a migrant laborer for several years — sleeping in fields and churches, at times going without food — before he found the focus and friendships that turned his life around.
This is why he volunteers on Christmas Day.
When other people were opening presents yesterday, Stover — joined by his wife, Gayle — rolled up his sleeves. It's an obligation. It's his turn.
"Life is a two-way street," he said. "I really want to give back the best I can."
For his third Christmas in a row, Stover prepared and served meals, scrubbed pots and pans, swept floors. He did whatever was needed to help the mission serve more than 300 meals.
Before they began their work yesterday, River of Life volunteers got a crash course in the workings of the mission and the many services it provides homeless and needy guests, from donations of food and clothing to counseling and social services to — in some cases — employment and housing. Yet, it is always left to the mission's clients to decide for themselves what they need.
"It's important that they feel this is a place where they are wanted," Stover said. "If there is something we can do for them, we want to do it. If they just need a hot meal to get them through the day, then that's what we'll do."
A WAY OF GIVING THANKS
Stover said the experience always makes his heart beat a little faster. "I remember times being hungry and being uncertain of what was going to happen tomorrow because of my situation in life," he said. "It is really easy for me to know what it would be like to be on the other side of this, to be the one who was in need. I really want the people whom I come in contact with to know how much I am thankful that I can be there to help them."
Bergie Clay, office manager at a Liliha dental office, started volunteering at the mission 12 years ago with members of her church.
"I was a single parent at the time and I just thought, 'This could be me. I'm one paycheck away from this,' " she said. "I kept coming back because I know this is where I need to be."
A part-time volunteer at River of Life, Clay says each Thanksgiving and Christmas takes on a deeper meaning for her as she sees the same guests year after year.
"They're not just guests," she said. "They're friends and family now, and they mean a lot to us."
The love Clay shares with the people she serves has found its way back to her in ways she might not have imagined. Clay met her husband, Tracy, also a longtime volunteer, when she first started volunteering at the mission. They were married six years ago.
Clay spent much of her shift helping in the kitchen. Outside in the dining room, guests of all stripes entered tentatively through the glass doors and into the pastel-painted dining room. There were teenage mothers with children, young men with fresh injuries they didn't care to explain, older guests with canes and walkers. Most were greeted by name; all were welcomed warmly as they received their paper plates of holiday ham, sweet potatoes, dinner rolls and dessert.
For 35-year-old Charlie McCallen, the Christmas meal was much appreciated.
"This is the place that feeds most of the homeless from Chinatown and all over," he said. "The people here don't have places to cook, or even food, but the (volunteers) here feed them and give their love."
William Bowdell, a real-estate man with Coldwell Banker, has been volunteering with River of Life since 1990.
"It makes my own meal taste that much better when I get home," said Bowdell, who spent yesterday afternoon wiping down tables in the dining room. "A little bit of time means so much to them. I'm just happy to be a part of this."
A GIFT OF MUSIC
The motives were the same for hundreds of volunteers around O'ahu. They gave of themselves in whatever ways they could.
For those who met Lea Woods Friedman, a first-time volunteer who delivered Christmas dinners for Lanakila Meals on Wheels, the hot food came with the gift of song.
Woods is a 31-year-old opera singer, a soprano who grew up in Honolulu but now performs around the world. She and her family — mom, dad and her younger brother — skipped their normal present-opening tradition and instead sang Christmas carols when they delivered meals to house-bound seniors.
They were part of an army of 350 volunteers who delivered more than 1,050 meals for Lanakila.
"We thought it would be a nice way to give to our community and to share the joys of the holidays," said Friedman, who has appeared often with the Hawai'i Opera Theatre.
Spreading holiday joy this way seemed a natural thing for the family.
"We're always singing," Friedman said. "We are a noisy musical family."
OFF TO AN EARLY START
The family's first task on the holiday was a 6:45 a.m. assignment to pack rolls and butter for the meals. After that, the Friedmans took their show on the road, a little unsure how their voices would sound at that early hour.
But off-key or not, the carols came from the heart.
"It's a good, new tradition we hope to start," Friedman said.
To volunteer on Christmas, to get up early when he'd rather be sleeping or reading the comics, is the only thing that Bob Frost can imagine doing every Dec. 25.
If you saw him, you'd know why. The white beard. The girth. At 62, a natural Saint Nick.
He spent the morning handing out presents for adults and children living at the two Iwilei shelters run by the Institute for Human Services. As in past years, he brought his dog, Ardy, a golden retriever that seems to be a hit with the children and others.
"I think some of them enjoy seeing him more than me," joked Frost. He said he helped as gifts were given out to about 30 children at the children's and women's shelter. Earlier, he was on hand as about 40 men showed up for Christmas-morning festivities.
Frost, a professional musician from Kailua who also owns an accounting firm, can't remember how many years he has volunteered his Santa skills for IHS. Six years? Seven? He said that doesn't matter.
"I just know that on Christmas morning, that is what I do," Frost said. "I just feel like maybe in some small way, I brightened these people's day or maybe their life."
Frost said that he's living his dreams — financially secure and working out of his own home — and that alone is reason enough to help someone less fortunate. If everyone volunteered somehow, the world would be a better place, he said.
"I think to not do that on Christmas Day would be to shortchange myself," he said. "I feel that I would not be the guy I want to look at in the mirror at the end of the day."
Reach Mike Gordon at firstname.lastname@example.org.