For many, 2020 has been a year of uncertainty and fear, but for Alana Yegsigian-Smith, it’s been the year she found her true purpose.
Since March, the 60-year-old Saddleback Church volunteer has been helping get fresh food and frozen goods to Orange County families and adults who need them most during this pandemic.
Most days each week, she spends early morning through midday at one of the church’s pop-up food pantries held throughout the county. Yegsigian-Smith, an Orange resident and a retired food broker, has traveled from Westminster to Whittier, Santa Ana to San Clemente to man distribution events.
She estimates she’s lifted 2 million pounds of food into cars, trucks and onto bicycles.
On an average day, she logs at least 10,000 steps on her Apple watch. “I love being physically busy.”
But it is also in serving others that she is finding joy and connections.
The demand for food in Orange County has been significant as the pandemic forces businesses to scale back or shut down and cut loose employees. Nearly 24% of adults in the county are facing food insecurity or don’t have access to enough food.
A report reviewed by the Orange County Board of Supervisors last month said that since 2018, there has been an 83% increase in the number of children without enough food and one in five kids faces at least occasional hunger as a result of the pandemic.
Saddleback Church hands out more than 1 million pounds of food each month – the supply comes from Second Harvest Food Bank, fresh produce and fruit grown at Saddleback’s own farm, Costco, Sam’s Club, Amazon Fresh, local grocers and Starbucks. Church members also donate thousands of staples such as peanut butter, pasta and bread and the church purchases large amounts of pantry items.
To accommodate that demand, church officials opened a new 50,000-square-foot grocery distribution center in Foothill Ranch. There, several semi-trucks drop off massive amounts of food each week. Since March 9, the church has provided more than 6.25 million meals.
It’s become one of the largest free grocery distribution efforts in the county, but it certainly isn’t the only.
Since the early days of the pandemic, community and faith organizations and their dedicated volunteers have stepped up hosting food distribution days and delivering meals around Orange County, making sure the coronavirus doesn’t keep neighbors from getting help.
Making a difference
For Yegsigian-Smith, providing folks with nutrition is her personal sustenance.
She remembers a day manning a distribution in Anaheim, where a line of vehicles stretched nearly half a mile. Amidst the sea of trucks and cars was a man on his beat-up bike.
“We loaded him up with pounds of food,” Yegsigian-Smith said. “He asked us to put everything in bags instead of boxes, so he could place all the bags on his handlebars. Then he pulled to the side behind one of the buildings and he was opening the bags like it was Christmas.
“To watch this guy, I started to cry. It was so special to see his face,” she said. “We never really get to see their faces when they get home. He was one of our very special ones.”
Yegsigian-Smith grew up in Orange County. She started getting involved at Saddleback Church decades ago, but, she was raising her twin boys and working full-time pedaling Heinz products along the West Coast.
Once her sons went to college, she dove in more and made a personal goal to get more spiritually connected. She signed up for a women’s Bible study, took a counseling workshop, went to Africa on a mission for children with special needs, and volunteered for the HIV ministry.
But, working with Saddleback’s food pantry got her back into something she knew a lot about.
Saddleback started handing out free groceries 11 years ago when it was discovered 13% of the church’s members were unemployed or under-employed.
In March, when the coronavirus hit, many pantries struggled through the shutdown to get volunteers and supplies to keep their open. Saddleback’s Pastor Rick Warren focused his church on helping the community with food. He encouraged his congregants to go into the community and meet people’s needs right where they were at. The church went from serving 2,500 families a month to serving 4,500 to 5,800 in a week.
Now, Saddleback runs an average of 12 to 15 pop-ups weekly. People stay in their cars and are offered produce, pantry staples, frozen foods and dairy as well as the opportunity open their hearts and tell their stories.
“I get to pray with people,” Yegsigian-Smith said. “You start to get really intimate with their stories and that’s where it all comes together.
“We feed them and then we feed them spiritually,” she said. “We’re opening their hearts each step of the way and God keeps opening them. Our food goes away after a week, but our salvation never goes away.”
And, it’s making that connection that Rana Muncy, Saddleback’s director of missions, sees as one of Yegsigian-Smith’s greatest gifts.
“People know they are wanted and that they’re loved,” she said of those coming through the lines. “You can see that shining through her eyes.
“She looks people in the eyes, smiles at them and waves at them,” Muncy said. “People feel welcome. There’s no judgment.”
Yegsigian-Smith is also the volunteer Muncy pairs with families who are serving with their young children for the first time. Because of Yegsigian-Smith’s enthusiasm, Muncy said they come back time after time to volunteer because “she makes it so much fun.”
For Yegsigian-Smith, 2020 has been a powerful and amazing year.
“It’s air hugs and kisses through all of it,” she said. “This year has been the one where I’ve been outwardly able to put myself out for the Lord.”