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Feeding Your Hungry Neighbors
The Guardians of Guadiana

This is the first in a multi-part series.Our goal is to show you how easy it is to start a food program to feed your hungry neighbors… and to encourage you to do it.

by Wendy Bichel

I'm one of those people who only works on my own projects, like my musical Bikers in Camelot, which took decades. I have a phobia about being distracted, which keeps me off of social media. I don't watch the news. And I definitely do not volunteer. It's against my personal code. Still, desperate times call for desperate measures, so when I heard from my friend Nory Contractor, Executive Director of Patronato Pro Niños, that you can feed a family of four to seven people for as little as $10 a week - groceries and produce - something happened to me. As my husband Ken says when he's infused with the inspiration to do a concert, I knew I was about to "put on the rhino mask and plow." I could not have another delicious meal delivered to my door knowing how many of my hungry neighbors could be fed for what it cost. Even though it was going to mean volunteering in a big way and violating my code, I had to make sure that my neighbors weren't hungry. Like everyone else, COVID-19 is kicking my ass and forcing me to stretch every which way.

Ken and I live in Guadiana, a prosperous colonia with a large ex-pat population. But I knew there were hidden pockets of poverty and some not so hidden. And I knew there had to be plenty of people in extra trouble because of the whole phenomenon of joblessness due to COVID-19. I sent an e-mail to the Guadiana Women's Group, an organization that had been in semi-retirement, announcing my intention to start a program to feed the hungry in Guadiana. With that letter I was stating for the record that I was actually going to start a program, and not just talk about it. Although there was little response at that early stage, for me it was a "hallelujah moment" – change was a'comin', I was going for the ride, and there would be no backing out. From then on everything I needed came to me – every mentor, every piece of information, the resources and the money.

The first step I took was to phone my friend, Sra. Maria Herrera de William, whose uncle, along with two others, founded Guadiana in the mid-forties when it was still just goat farms. Sra. William married an American she met in San Miguel when she was eighteen. The couple moved to California, but returned to Guadiana when she was in her thirties and he became ill. Since then, she has always been an important part of the Guadiana community as well as a pillar in Alma, the organization that provides care and housing for the elderly. I told her my plan and she offered to take over on the next phase of the process – finding the people who needed help. I could never have done this without her, because although I wanted to help my neighbors, I honestly didn't know them. My husband Ken and I have always been "artistes," living our lives here in San Miguel in much the same way as we had lived them back in New York City, where we didn't know our neighbors either. Sra. William contacted three of her friends and asked them to find out which families in Guadiana were in real need. Within days these three women presented me with a list of fourteen families, their names and addresses.

One of the three, Silvia Hernandez Palacios, further volunteered to help in whatever way might be needed. Born in Guadiana, Silvia has lived here most of her life. She is a beloved member of the chapel next door to me on Las Moras, which, for the Mexican community, is the heart of this colonia. She knows everybody and everybody knows and loves her. When she lost her son last winter, it was standing room only at the church, where you could feel not only the deep mourning, but the respect that this family has earned from all their neighbors. Silvia became mi compañera. As such, she advises me on all matters cultural. She knows what's going on with every family and can guide me. She even offered to distribute the despensas, which probably best translates as care-packages, from her home, making it a much more personal experience for those receiving them.

We call our organization Guardianes de Guadiana, but there would be no Guardianes de Guadiana without Silvia. I treasure our growing friendship. I have been told by both Cate Poe, who started Por Amor a la Guadalupe and Betsy McNair who founded Helping Hands in Marfil, Guanajuato that they also cherish the transformative relationships they enjoy with their compañeras. It's one of the many perks of the job.

The next step in the process of starting a food program is normally figuring out how much money you have with which to work. That way you can determine how many people you can feed. I already knew how many I had to feed and trusted that whatever it took, the money would come. So I postponed fundraising and went directly to the fun part – shopping. I started researching despensas.

There are many ways to set up a program and you have to make it work for yourself or it will become a burden. Following the lead of one of my mentors, Guadalupe Alvarez, founder of Amigos al 100, one of the largest organizations feeding people in San Miguel, I decided to distribute bi-monthly. From responses to my original e-mail, I knew that most people I knew in Guadiana were sheltering at home, so we were not going to be getting together to pack despensas. But that wasn't a problem. With the current level of unemployment, many wholesale businesses have recently sprung up specializing both in selling pre-made despensas and making them to order. I compared prices and went with someone Guadalupe recommended because the price was right and the produce was beautiful.


The author, Wendy Bichel
***

In order to determine the contents of the despensas I turned to my mentors Guadalupe, Cate and Betsy. I compared what each of them was giving their constituents and compiled my own version then gave it to Silvia. As a Mexican mother she is the highest authority on the subject. She edited it with such comments as, "Potatoes are more useful than zucchini" and "Nobody needs that much Clorox." In this new world, mentors are both indispensable and readily available. We all want the same thing, for everybody to be fed. Our despensas include all-purpose soap, toilet paper, beans, rice, lentils, oatmeal, noodles for soup, sugar, pasta, cooking oil, jamaica, a can of tuna and a large bag containing kilos of very beautiful produce.

It never occurred to me that I might have to pay for the first distribution myself. I continued to running on the assumption that everything would work out. Day-by-day this belief was being reinforced. When a very generous member of the Guadiana Women's Group dropped me a note offering to donate exactly the amount we needed for the first distribution of despensas, I was deeply grateful, but not surprised. We put in our order and three days later Silvia handed them out, after having told each family member who intended to collect the food at what time to show up and to be wearing a mask… or else. That's when I began formal fundraising by writing a letter to the Guadiana Women's Group, telling the members that we were operational, and asking for funds to continue the work. We were immediately showered with donations.

Although my first effort at raising funds was successful, I am not a fundraiser. The thought of having to do continual fundraising for a long-term project, which I am quite certain this will be, was something that concerned me. The solution was provided when along with those first donations I received a lovely note with an offer of help from Beverly Van Zandt, a delightful woman with Southern charm and actual fundraising experience. Beverly volunteered to take over that part of the program. Our "business meetings," socially distanced in my garden, are more than that. Between Silvia and Beverly, Guardianes de Guadiana has also provided me with an outside social life.

The last member of the team stepped up out of pity. After watching me adding up donations on my fingers, my husband Ken offered his skill as a "bean counter." He took over the bookkeeping, a rather complex task since we receive money every which way: Paypal, US checks, dollars and pesos. No one yet has donated any livestock. Apart from being a magnificent pianist, Ken can handle finances with great aplomb and only the occasional complaint.

Guardianes de Guadiana has been operating since June 6th. We're feeding 18 families, a total of 116 people. While that's not many compared to most of the other programs, it's keeping 116 people from the desperation of these crazy times. Just as importantly we're keeping our 116 off the roles of larger organizations, like Guadalupe's Amigos al 100, that are saturated with people in need. This is a very serious crisis. We know that over 50% of Mexico is unemployed. That means that millions of people are hungry or on the verge of hunger. In my world, nobody should ever be hungry. It's completely unnecessary. All it takes is a compassionate society.


Beverly Van Zandt, Wendy Bichel, Ken Bichel, Silvia Hernandes Palacia
***

Since I started this program, every day I watch people step up to help their neighbors, the haves sharing with the have-nots; I am blessed by having a front row seat to watch the world functioning exactly the way I have always hoped it would. In San Miguel, compassion rules! We are a model for how it can be. I'm proud to live here and I wish this experience on everybody, knowing that anybody who says yes to this work can count on help. There are guides and mentors, but no rules.

If you are moved to start a food program, you can contact me or Cate Poe. Cate has been a true midwife to all the programs that are currently out there feeding people. We want to make sure that everybody is fed, and, in that, we need your help. It's really not difficult. If you can get just three or four people together, you can feed your neighbors. It doesn't have to be a whole colonia, it can be a few blocks. Do it any way that makes you comfortable. That's what I did.

To give you some very solid examples of how you, too, can start a food program, in the next episode of our series, Cate Poe is going to talk about the various programs that are currently operating in San Miguel and how they work. She'll also share some of her experiences in helping them get off the ground. We're all teaching each other in this brave new world because so much is uncharted territory. The up-side of COVID-19 is that even if we can't affect all the madness out there, we can at least re-design a piece of our own world.

The Basic Steps for Feeding Your Hungry
by Cate Poe

1) Find someone you trust who is bi-lingual.
2) Find a compañera or advisor who knows the neighbors and who has credibility.
3) Build a base of steady donors from existing lists, social media, word of mouth and contacting neighbors.
4) Determine how many families you can help and how often you can afford to support them, then have your compañera or advisor find the families.
5) Based on your volunteer capacity, decide whether to distribute vouchers, ready-made despensas or ones you assemble.
6) Find a location for distribution and someone who will handle it.
7) Give yourself a big pat on the back.

Donate to Guadianes de Guadiana at Ken Bichel's Paypal: kendo88@mac.com. Click on the "sending as a friend" option. If you want to give pesos, dollars or checks (we can easily come by your home or business) please e-mail Wendy or Beverly:

wendybichel@gmail.com
beverlyvz@gmail.com

Donate to Por Amor a la Guadalupe by contacting:

catepoe@gmail.com

**************

Wendy Bichel graduated from Stanford in creative writing. After a successful stint in Europe singing jazz, she returned to New York City during the "golden age of cabaret," and performed a series of original one-woman shows, including the successful, Wendy Wonder and Permanent Wave. She received a full fellowship from the highly acclaimed Masters Program in Music Theatre Writing at NYU. She was commissioned by Gail Merrifield Papp of the Public Theater to write a ten-minute musical, then a full-length musical, Love, Sex and Rock and Roll. A European PR firm commissioned her to write a musical/pageant, The Millennium Medicine Show for Tina Turner. Among her other works are a two-actor vampire musical,Are You Dying to Live with Me; an opera, The Garden of Katan; Emir, a children's musical; and Bikers in Camelot, which premiered in San Miguel on February 20, 2019, and about which Fred Dannen of Boleto City said, "The entire three-week run was sold out. It was by any measure the most successful English language production in the theater's history."

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