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A Hot Meal at St. Vincent de Paul 

Marylee Price and the dining facility team feed the hungry

Larry Alexander and Marylee Price at the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Facility.

Photo by Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Larry Alexander and Marylee Price at the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Facility.

On a bright but chilly Monday morning in November, a handful of people are already waiting on a sunny patch of sidewalk across from the blue St. Vincent de Paul Dining Facility building at 35 Third St. in Eureka. At 11 a.m., the door will open to a dining hall with a high-ceiling, color-block cafeteria tables and pink and turquoise trays of free hot food — chicken and vegetable stir-fry today. And, in one of her trademark rainbow tie-dye T-shirts, there will be Marylee Price, hustling from one task to the next.

Price, who's worked at the dining facility for 20 years, runs it full time with a couple other staffers, an interning culinary student and a roster of volunteers: some with church groups or schools, some long-term, some who've been or are homeless and want to give back. On a typical day, they serve some 200 people — more at the end of the month and double that with outdoor meals at the height of the pandemic, says Price — whatever hearty lunches they can come up with from the donations they get from grocery stores, businesses and individuals. As it gets colder, she notes, "You need something that will stick with you for a while." It's important the food be nutrient rich, too, since for many it will be the only food they get for the day before heading back out to the street or to work.

"We don't ask anything of you except be nice to the person next to you," and bus your tray, Price says. You can pray along or not when someone says grace, and you can get seconds if you're still hungry.

Before opening, Jacky Owsley, a 16-year volunteer, and Vicki French, "a newbie," sort cases of Danishes and pale green pistachio muffins from WinCo and Costco, two of St. Vincent De Paul's biggest donors. Against the wall are shelves packed with loaves of French bread and bags of bagels people can help themselves to.

Steven Thompson has been cooking, cleaning, stocking and serving at St. Vincent de Paul for seven years says, "We all pull together." Whether staff or volunteer, the regulars cross train and fill in on any number of jobs, handling whatever needs doing. Price, he says, "is our glue. She holds everything together."

"Mary's like a mother hen here," says Jacky, adding that Price "treats everybody like family," looking out for the workers and the clients, and making sure there are holiday presents for all the children who come in. "We're very lucky to have her."

The 59-year-old Price wears her sandy hair cropped, just covering her brow and the tops of her ears. She stands with her feet apart at a sink, washing soda cans from busted cases, her mouth turned down as she hoists and sprays them. She's due for a double knee replacement, which shows in her gait, but she makes do with ibuprofen. "I just kinda go in that zone. It's when I'm not working," she trails off, shaking her head.

Originally from the Bay Area, she came to Humboldt County at the age of 5, grew up here and raised three children of her own. "I've been homeless," she says, explaining how she lost her apartment when her landlord died. Though she got help from friends, she says, "I know how easy it is to become homeless." Back then, she was already working full time at the dining facility. "It was a welfare to work program for me," before she came on permanently. "A lot of people who work here want to pay something back," she says, adding many of the staff and volunteers have their own stories of homelessness. "We don't make a lot of money but we want to do this."

It's not only those without housing who the facility serves. In some cases, Price says, "You have enough to pay your bills but not enough to eat. This is a warm place to fill your belly before you go back to work." It's not uncommon for fishery workers to come in for a hot meal.

Most folks don't cause problems and few are banned from the dining facility, Price says. "And there's those who we feed but we don't allow them in our building. We don't want to not feed them because they were bad or misbehaved, or whatever you wanna call it. None of us are perfect. ... I'm not perfect." She thinks the usual crowd keeps most everyone in line, though she sees more people coming in struggling with mental illness. "So you learn to deal with each person different," she says, and just saying hello can go a long way.

Beyond food and a chance to come in from the weather, a host of services are on site to help those in need. Betty Kwan Chinn Homeless Foundation's showers are available Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and representatives from St. Joseph Hospital's outreach and Eureka's Uplift programs help guide people to health, employment and housing support they might not otherwise find.

Ron White Jr. has been coming to St. Vincent de Paul's dining facility for years and says it's also a source of community, a chance to gather with others and share information. The food and the kindness are appreciated, as well. "I don't have to go steal or worry about getting something to eat. I can rest," he says. He says of Price, "Ask her for anything and she'll help you if she can. She keeps order around here." The staff and volunteers, he adds, "treat you like a person."

With a long bob of pink hair, 61-year-old Cecilia Langan echoes his sentiments. She's been coming to the dining hall for 11 years now and sometimes volunteers herself. "Mary Price is one beautiful person. She'll take the shirt off her back for you." The man across from her at the table nods. When her arm was injured and Langan couldn't come to the facility, she says volunteers brought food to her. "All these people are love."

Larry Alexander, a homeless outreach worker for the city of Eureka, got his start working at St. Vincent de Paul and is a regular fixture at the door, a city ID on his lanyard. "We all have to eat ... and to be able to be a part of providing that, that's great. He's known Price for 20 years and says with a broad smile, "Her compassion is just compared to none. She just loves these people."

For Thanksgiving and Christmas, prep starts two days ahead, the number of helpers in the kitchen grows to 25 and they fire up all four industrial stoves to turn out some 500 meals. They'll need more volunteers and donations, says Price, who recalls Sara Bareilles coming in to lend a hand one holiday. "She walked in and said, 'I wanna help.' I didn't even know who she was."

Price and her crew, some of whom you can spot in the mural behind the building (she's easy to find in her usual tie-dye), will start the prep for Thanksgiving on Tuesday. She boasts whole families will be there, some traveling to be together and share a meal at the dining hall. She chuckles and says she doesn't know how to cook for five anymore, only hundreds.

"I appreciated this place when my kids were little. I never had to worry if I didn't have money," Price says. "There's a lot of good people in Eureka. When my freezer was empty, people in Eureka stepped up."

To volunteer or donate to the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Facility, stop in at 35 Third St. in Eureka or call (707) 445-9588.

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at (707) 442-1400, extension 320, or jennifer@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Mastodon @jenniferfumikocahill@mastodon.online.

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About The Author

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Bio:
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor of the North Coast Journal. She won the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2020 Best Food Writing Award and the 2019 California News Publisher's Association award for Best Writing.

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