Big Heart Wellness Center — embedded in community, collaborating with neighbors

St. Bartholomew’s, Livermore, has been coordinating a food pantry for 20 years. Their food pantry, facilitated through Interfaith Sharing, Inc., is one of the only pantries in their area open on weekends — which is the only time some clients are available to receive food. In the four hours a week the pantry is open, over 200 clients in the Livermore area receive the food necessary to keep them living. In addition to English, clients at the food pantry may speak Mandarin, Spanish, Farsi, Tagalog, Hindi, or Russian.

The challenges that clients face are often not only related to food, but nutrition, legal aid, or mental health. For most of the its history the food pantry has made a conscious decision to stay narrowly focused on food — no one was trained in case management or social work, and so no one was asked to undertake that work. 

In the summer of 2013 the Episcopal Charities Action Network for Southern Alameda County awarded St. Bart’s a grant to create the Big Heart Wellness Center, a network of support services beyond providing only food. Charisma Thomas is the coordinator of the wellness center and now helps clients with other needs, including legal aid referrals through Bay Area Legal Aid and referrals to Tri Valley Resources through the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Through their collaboration with local agencies, Big Heart Wellness Center is making an even bigger impact on the lives of those they serve.

Other components of the Big Heart Wellness Center are offering nutrition support — cooking classes, Cal Fresh sign-ups, and advice on healthy, economic eating — and the Big Heart Garden at St. Bartholomew’s. The Big Heart Garden offers organic fresh fruits and vegetables for the pantry.

Other than from the garden, the food pantry gets its food from a variety of other sources. It is facilitated through Interfaith Sharing, Inc., which has drivers who rescue groceries from Target, Walmart, and Trader Joe’s every morning. Local grocery stores agree to give food away if, and only if, there will be someone to collect it. What is available for clients changes from day to day, however the food pantry does purchase staples so that they are always in stock.

Having added to the food pantry ministry with case working and referrals, Big Heart Wellness Center continues to grow; according to their website, “our new program coordinator, working with Mother Joyce and Rosemary Young, will facilitate a monthly calendar of workshops, classes, and opportunities for our neighbors to improve the wellness in their lives.” Embedded in their community with garden, referrals, food, and classes, St. Bart’s and Big Heart offer just one example of church vitality.