Sunday suppers at home are a tradition for millions of Americans. But what about those with no place to call home, or those scrambling to put enough food on the table?
Since April, a local private school has begun putting its mission of social justice to work at the South Napa Shelter. A rotation of students and parents from Blue Oak School visits the city’s main haven for homeless people for two hours each Sunday afternoon, offering hot meals both to the shelter’s residents and to any low-income Napans in danger of having to choose between food and medicine, fuel and the other necessities of life.
While other families were spending Mother’s Day at restaurants across the city, Harjeet and Prabhjot Bhangoo – parents of a Blue Oak student and the owners of Aroma Indian Cuisine – arrived with about eight others at the dining hall of the homeless shelter on Hartle Court.
Pulling the lids off dishes that had been cooked at Aroma and then warmed in the shelter kitchen, the helpers quickly ladled chicken tikka masala, lentils and rice for an assortment of men and women, who took their plates from the kitchen counter to the shelter hall or the canopied patio outside for dinner and companionship.
“How many of us can see ourselves making change in the world?” said Sharon Wippern, a school mother and co-founder of Blue Oak’s Sunday Supper campaign.
The effort to help feed homeless and hard-luck Napans reflects not only the commitment of Blue Oak, an independent school for children from kindergarten to eighth grade, to teaching and carrying out social justice, but its blend of income levels amid the community’s wealth and glamour, according Wippern.
“We have people at Blue Oak who come from all walks of life, and everyone wants to help at the level where they can help,” she said of the school, where nearly half the 144 students receive tuition assistance. “We have vineyard workers’ kids here, and we have vineyard owners’ kids. We have people whose parents work in restaurants – and whose parents own the restaurants. Diversity isn’t just racial; it’s also about socioeconomic diversity.”
It was the reality of homeless people in Napa – including those who frequented Blue Oak’s Polk Street grounds – that planted the seed of action among parents and faculty.
The academy’s parents association met in March with Mitch Wippern, Sharon’s husband and the Napa County deputy health and human services director, and their discussions revealed an unmet need: the absence of weekend hot meals at the South Napa Shelter.
“It was like an instant decision,” said Harjeet Bhangoo of his decision to provide food from his restaurant for the Sunday Suppers. After several weeks of talks with shelter directors and an online sign-up of volunteers, the first group of Blue Oak pupils, parents, alumni and friends began providing meals on Easter Sunday, with as many as 50 people being served each weekend since. (The surplus from Aroma’s weekly contribution of 120 meals is refrigerated, reheated and served to other shelter visitors.)
The offering of Sunday dinners to those without home or family caused Bhangoo to recall the example of giving he said his father set in their native India, where he helped build homes and donated warm clothing to the less fortunate.
“I saw all this through my father’s eyes; all of these things came to me through him,” said Bhangoo, whose 6-year-old son Rehmat attends first grade at Blue Oak. “I think that’s why I ended up in the restaurant industry. Feeding somebody, rich or poor, you get that satisfaction when you see their eyes.”
With the approach of summer vacation, Blue Oak’s circle of volunteers may soon widen. Some shelter residents have offered to pitch in as servers themselves, while parents and staff are seeking other Napa eateries to join Aroma in providing the meals – as well as a grocery or dairy willing to donate ingredients.
“If each (school) family worked a couple Sundays a year, we’d be covered,” said Wippern of Sunday Supper, which already has enough volunteer commitments to keep the program running through the summer.
“It’s been going around; a lot of people want to help out at our school,” said Ava Dominguez, a 12-year-old seventh grader, as she served the Sunday meal alongside her Blue Oak schoolmates. “And everyone is really thankful that we’re here.”