The scent of tomato and beans wafted from the microwave and across a tableful of women at Hamburg’s Elderwood nursing home on a recent Tuesday afternoon. The Burrito Project was underway.
The women worked with quiet focus to pile on rice, sprinkle cheese, fold up tortillas and put together a warm meal for people living on the streets of Buffalo.
Within a hour or two they would have about 100 lunch bags ready with burritos, cookies, pudding cups and bananas for a “street team” of volunteers to deliver to people they’ve found making a home in parks, tunnels and bridges.
“My heart just swells up. I’m just so happy,” said Faye Dils, who has been volunteering with the Burrito Project since it came to the nursing home in May. “I would love to go down on that street and help out, but I can’t.”
The Burrito Project, burritoproject.org, is a grass-roots effort to deliver meals to homeless and hungry people that started in California, explained Joaquin Ortiz, organizer and “Web maintenance guy” speaking by phone from Sacramento.
After starting in the neighborhood known as Skid Row in Los Angeles in 2007, it spread with some 40 chapters nationwide. The beauty of it, he said, is its simplicity.
”It’s something small, but it’s something that can contribute,” he said. “It’s just a few people cooking burritos saying, ‘Hey, we can roll 100 burritos in 20, 30 minutes’ ... They’re good burritos, too ... You meet some very cool people.”
The Buffalo chapter, founded by Elderwood Chaplain Deborah Greatrix-Tyler six years ago, is based at St. Paul Lutheran Church in North Tonawanda.
The burritos are made at the church most Tuesdays. Then 10 volunteers go out to make deliveries. Canisius College students started to help and then formed their own Burrito Project chapter. They took over one Tuesday.
Hamburg’s Elderwood, the most recent addition to the project, has been handling the second Tuesday of the month since May.
While women worked at a long table in the activity room last Tuesday, Nurse Colleen Potter stopped in to watch.
“Look at this!” she said. “This is beautiful.”
Before things got started at about 3 p.m., people had been eagerly asking about it. “The patients can’t wait to get here and be part of it,” Potter said. “They feel like they’re still giving. They were all mothers and wives.”
At one end of the table, Dils scooped rice and beans onto a tortilla and then passed the plate to Julia DiPaolis.
Known jokingly by her nickname, “I Do the Cheese,” DiPaolis sprinkled cheddar shreds on top.
It was nice to be here with neighbors making something for someone in need. “They’re all cold outside and everything,” DiPaolis said.
Edna Cabarga, who sat beside her rolling up one tinfoil packet after another, is known for her fast work. “I’m like a machine,” she said. “I’ve done this so many times.”
Greatrix-Tyler, whose ministry includes Elderwood residents, thought burrito-making would be a good way for people to find meaning and purpose in their lives.
“People are so grateful,” she said. “They’re very surprised to get warm food in the middle of winter.”
Dils said making burritos connects her with the life she led before. She used to volunteer all the time, working as a Girl Scout leader and leading a taxpayers association.
A few minutes later, Dils leaned toward a woman across the way who, like her, was putting scoops of rice on the tortillas.
This was the woman’s first Burrito Project afternoon and she, too, was looking pleased and interested as she worked.
“See what you’ve been missing all this time?” Dils said. “Boy, I bet you’re not going to miss it again.”