Soul Food

When you're starving -- for help, for attention, for food -- everything's kosher.

"We've been here seven, eight years, and it was supposed to be completely kosher," he explains, "but it's a bit of a mislead. We have some kosher food available, and we try not to have pork or shellfish, but we also try not to restrict it, because we need to feed as many people as we can. What we try to provide is nutritional food for seniors -- a lot of whom just immigrated here, say, and are short of money. And these are people who are proud: It would be hard for them not to pay the electrical bill, but if they don't eat, no one notices. Hunger is something you can hide if you're proud."

The Pantry is open only on Wednesdays. The rest of the time, Rob can be found operating his one-man safety net at Jewish Family Services: administering the distribution of $45,000 in emergency funds, food, rent assistance and transportation each year; listening to the hard-luck stories that he insists are increasingly common, despite the recent economic boom.

"These are the working poor we're talking about," he says. "This past year, I helped out nearly 100 percent more single-parent families than I did the year before. It's the increase in rent and living expenses. You have to earn $11 or $12 per hour to make it in this town, and these are people -- say, a woman abandoned by a skilled worker -- in the $7-to-$10 bracket. It doesn't take much to slip into a crisis -- an illness, or your car breaks down. If you earn $7.50 per hour, you don't get assistance, and if you're also dealing with a deadbeat dad, you're in trouble. As for the seniors, the old-age pension in Colorado is $546 per month. Even five years ago, that would be enough to make rent -- when rent was $400 to $450. In Glendale these days, it's up around $675."

With Rob Sawyer, help is at hand.
Brett Amole
With Rob Sawyer, help is at hand.

The discouraging math is compounded by the fact that many Russian immigrants sign a voluntary waiver of Social Security and food-stamp benefits as a way of making themselves seem less of a burden in the eyes of immigration officials. And a burden is the last thing that the Russian immigrants Rob knows would want to be.

"They take care of each other," he explains. "We have a complex distribution of Russian seniors dividing up food and bringing it to other Russian seniors, who otherwise wouldn't know we exist. If anything's unfair, we hear about it. We even have Russian volunteers who make sure we're packing up food Russians will actually eat. They don't, for instance, understand why anyone would eat peanut butter. But they love oil, mayonnaise, cabbage, potatoes, onions..."

"Greasy, potato salad-y things," adds Dan Haykin, a nineteen-year-old volunteer whose parents immigrated from Belarus when he was two months old. "I unloaded 500 pounds of potatoes today, and I don't think you'll have any trouble getting rid of them. I'm in the physical condition to do that kind of stuff, and I like it."

Not that he has any choice in the matter: Dan is here performing the last of forty hours of community service he incurred after cooking a can of chili over an open fire during last summer's fire ban. "It was sheer stupidity," he admits, "and I also got a district attorney in a very bad mood. But I have to say, it strikes close to home for me, being here. At first they sent me over to shelve books at the library, and I was like, forget it, I want to see the people I help. I want to drive some pain-in-the-ass old guy back home with his groceries and speak Russian to him and the babushkas. It's what you do."

Although Dan is too young to remember eating food handouts, he came here many times to pick up supplies for elderly relatives who arrived at regular intervals from Russia. "I know we all lived in one room, and I remember being poor; I just don't remember it mattering," he recalls. "I have a set of grandparents who still come here for food once in a while -- they've been here only a few years, and one of them has real bad diabetes. I have another grandma and an aunt who live together. She has a lot of mental disease, and they barely get by. There was a time when my dad would come here to pick up food for them."

If that time has come and gone -- both Dan and his sister attend high-rent Eastern colleges -- it's because of their father's classic immigrant experience. "We kid him because he still speaks totally broken English," Dan says, "but at the same time he wasn't learning the American language, he became fascinated with American economics. In a socialist system, the government gives you something and you say thank you. Here, he realized, you could invest, and that's what he did, and he did exceptionally well. Finally, he gave up his job as an electrical engineer and went into business as an investment advisor for other immigrants. And it's a good thing, because someone always has to be available to drive these old relatives around to their doctor's appointments and make sure they have food."

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