Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Expat’s grassroots food program plays Santa year-round to homebound veracruzanos

One of my daughter’s favorite books, even when it’s not even close to Christmas, is The (Wonderful) Truth about Santa by B.K. Gendran. The gist of the book is that Santa Claus is a tradition that encompasses the spirit of giving, which anyone can embody; therefore, Santa is “real” in that anyone can be a Santa. 

It starts by telling the story of “the first” Santa Claus, St. Nicholas. He kicks things off in the book by sneaking into a poor family’s home to leave some gold coins in their stockings that are hung up to dry by the fire.

The father “catches” him, and St. Nicholas says, “Keep the gold coins. But tell no one who gave them to you.” 

The father is so overjoyed that he just can’t keep quiet (I know the feeling, my dude!) and basically tells everyone. And from then on, parents were inspired to give in secret. 

I thought of this story after talking to John Robert Small, a fellow U.S. immigrant who lives outside of Coatepec, Veracruz, the next town over from me. 

Like many of us around here, he’s been living a quiet life, seamlessly folded into the surrounding community. Not one to draw attention to himself, this is precisely how he likes it: “Cup of Love is not about me,” he says. “I don’t want to be the face of it.”

Taza de Amor, or Cup of Love, is Small’s food service program that he runs from his garden and kitchen to deliver meals to primarily elderly shut-ins and other people who can’t leave their homes. In keeping with his preference not to draw attention to himself, none of the people who receive the benefit of his work have actually received anything directly from Small; most recipients have no idea who he is.

“I don’t really like the word ‘needy,’ but the truly neediest people around here are older folks in poor health who can’t leave their homes… sometimes the person delivering the food will be the only person they see all week.”

Small became keenly aware of this population when COVID-19, pushed his and other church communities’ services online. One of the only good things about the pandemic, he says, was that more people got internet access as a matter of necessity.

He quickly realized that even before the pandemic hit, there were many people in his community that were never able to attend Mass; they were essentially trapped in their homes. 

“Suddenly, they were able to rejoin their friends at church,” he says. 

From there came a question. “What are they doing for food and such?” 

Small has always loved to cook. Though he didn’t go into cooking as a career, it’s something that has always come naturally to him. And with two acres of land, he had already been gardening and growing plenty of food before the pandemic. 

When the Italian restaurant he’d been selling tomatoes to closed, along with every other public-facing business, he decided he could put that land, and his love for cooking, to good use. 

“That first Sunday, we delivered six meals,” he said. “Our delivery person said that one woman couldn’t believe that anyone had remembered her.” 

Since then, he’s served anywhere from 16 to 184 meals on any given Sunday. The demand varies. 

“This Sunday is Christmas, and is our 90th consecutive Sunday. We’re only expecting [to serve] around 30, as more older people have visitors on the holiday.” 

Though his budget is often limited — he lives on his retirement pension and pools together money from that as well as donations made to his page and occasional sales of an original painting – there are a few elements he’s always sure to include. 

“I always bake something to send along with the meal, and when fruit is in season and not too expensive, I’ll include a piece for everyone,” he said. 

He makes a point of only using biodegradable packaging and focuses on making sure to include protein, carbohydrates and vegetables so that every meal is as well-rounded and complete as possible. 

“Even if they don’t have much and the meal is just for one person, I’ve heard of people inviting their neighbors over to share,” Small said.

A former banker and computer programmer, he now spends his days painting, gardening and, especially over the past two years, shopping at the markets and cooking for his beneficiaries. 

“I try to find out by Wednesday how many people need to be served so that I can do all the shopping on Thursday and Friday,” he says. He inevitably gets messages as late as Saturday about new people to include.

While Small is in charge of the shopping, cooking, and packing, his “elves” — volunteer delivery people he knows and people from his church — take care of both letting him know how many people could use his service and getting the meals to them. He pitches in for gasoline as much as he can.

He estimates that with all costs included, each meal likely costs between US $3-4. While donations help, much of his budget for food and supplies comes out of his own pocket. Sometimes donors go above and beyond, though, which translates into even more help for those in need.

“We asked one woman if she had been eating, and she said that she hadn’t because she was saving money to see a specialist.” When a fellow painter heard the story, he says, she decided to pick up the tab.

Small may have a small budget, but he has big dreams for his homegrown initiative. He’s hoping to expand into surrounding areas in order to serve more and more people. And despite his tendency to stay in the shadows when it comes to doing good, he wants to see Taza de Amor lead by example.

“We hope that others will hear about these needs that so many have and say, ‘Hey, I can do something like that!’” 

  • If you would like to “be Santa” to someone else, you can donate to the Taza de Amor program here or via Small’s PayPal account by searching for his handle, johnrobertpaints@gmail.

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, sdevrieswritingandtranslating.com

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