by Maureen McNair
Leo Casas is the property manager for the strip mall in Chula Vista where our South Bay Food Pantry is located. I do not know what I would have done without Leo for the last couple years.
Leo is a tall, gently-spoken bilingual senior citizen who is still noticeably in love love with his wife of many years. They met as teenagers in Mexico. They have children and grandchildren now. I hear stories about them, the food they bring over for holidays, the son who is an architect in Santa Monica who does not make it home as often as Leo would like. Leo is a man a devotion, who also treats the strip mall and pantry with the same care I would expect from an owner. He and his wife live near the food pantry. He has an intuitive understanding that the work we do is for the community.
Leo volunteers at the pantry every Saturday and more. The thing I love about him most is he sees what needs to be done and then does it. Here’s an example. There is only one driveway for vehicles to use to get in and out of the strip mall. We have traffic and parking concerns when we are providing food for over 200 families in 90 minutes on Saturdays. Clients start lining up before dawn. This is food pantry culture wherever you go. Our volunteers tell them it’s not necessary to line up so early, that we have plenty of food. But, there you have it.
Volunteers hand out numbers to clients at 9 AM so clients can hold their place in line and go about their business until the food distribution starts at 11 AM. After 9 AM, we stagger entry times into the parking lot based on number so we don’t run out of parking places. Every Saturday, Leo dons his orange traffic vest and stands at the driveway checking client numbers. He puts traffic cones inside the parking lot to manage the flow of the vehicles. This past week, Leo had an out-patient medical procedure that he knew would keep him from volunteering. He called me to tell me he would be at home Saturday. Then, he offered to find his own substitute volunteer. That is devotion.
On Fridays, Leo anticipates our parking needs. A team of church members deploys to several places to source food every Friday morning. The food pantry has designated, reserved parking spaces near our doors so we can unload the hundreds of pounds of food we manually carry inside. Our parking places are marked with clear signage in bold letters.(By the way, Leo ordered the signage for us and installed them for us without charging us for his labor.) One of the other strip mall tenants is notorious among volunteers for taking all the parking places — even ones with signage for other tenants like us — then also double-parking so extensively we cannot even drive through the mall parking lot. So, Friday mornings, Leo takes it upon himself to get up early, drive over to the pantry, and put orange traffic cones in our designated parking spaces. That way, when the food sourcing team members arrive in their vehicles, we have a better chance of being able to park in our own spaces.
If you have ever been to our South Bay campus, you know every bathroom has a quirk. Above each toilet is a metal box set into the wall. Inside the box, a lever is installed on the pipe through which the water flows. We have to turn the lever on and off whenever we are on campus. A couple weeks ago, the door to the metal box above one of the toilets jammed shut. We tried, but couldn’t fix it ourselves. Leo brought in his tools and fixed it for us without charge.
When the food pantry closed for Christmas and New Year’s Day, I created signage about our closure dates and reopening date. I made signs in English and Spanish about our hours and dates, signs in English and Spanish about alternate resources, signs in English and Spanish about the diaper distribution remaining open. Who showed up to help me tape the signs into place? Leo. Leo showed up.
The food pantry had never closed since we opened over two years ago until the coincidence of our Saturday food distribution falling on Christmas Day. Who showed up Christmas Day at the pantry to talk to people who drifted in? Leo. Leo showed up. Ditto for New Year’s Day, which also coincidentally fell on a Saturday.
Leo has helped me every week for over two years now. We could have had a property manager who shut us down. You cannot imagine the creative variations in food distribution we have come up with during the pandemic. We have distributed food from indoors only, from only parking spaces, from the sidewalks, and currently from doorways, sidewalks, and parking spaces. Leo has supported us through all of it. I cannot imagine doing this work without him. Even though he is not a member of our church — I don’t know that he ever attended a service — he treats our work as a ministry as much as our volunteer members do. That is why I love Leo Casas.
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