Dozens of people stood in line on a recent crisp, fall morning for free food that St. Vincent de Paul of Contra Costa County gives away outside St. Callistus Catholic Church in El Sobrante. Many were immigrants who spoke little English, but that mattered not to volunteer Arlesa Miles, who immediately welcomed them with a warm smile, a hug or a fist bump, and set about filling their bags with exactly what they needed.

“We’ve got waffles here, sweet potatoes, pizza bites or you want some chips?” Miles asked as a woman wheeled a grocery cart past her in line, pointing to food items one by one, which she would then place in their bag.

“Where are you grandbabies?” she said to another older woman slowly walking past her table. “They’d like these (oatmeal energy balls); they have blueberries in the middle.”

Miles, once hungry herself, has made it her mission to get to know the people who come to St. Vincent de Paul for help — including several living in tents atop the steep hill behind the church — on its twice-weekly food pantry giveaways. The New York-raised volunteer may have little in common with the South Asians, Chinese, Latinos and others in line, but somehow she has found common ground by learning what foods they like, what they would never eat and sharing with them in a way to make them feel special. The language difference is not a barrier for Mills.

“I know what they need,” the vivacious volunteer said. “Sometimes they can say things and I can say it back to them, but not exactly the way they said it. But we laugh about it because at least I’m trying to understand them….”

Full story in the East Bay Times.