PICO RIVERA — The sandwich assembly line begins just as the sun starts shining through the windows of the church cafeteria.
In the kitchen, Al Hernandez patiently feeds 20-pound cartons of egg salad into a hand-operated grinder, producing enough pale yellow spread to fill 1,500 sandwiches for the hungry and homeless.
About 15 volunteer sandwich-makers line the sides of two banquet tables set up on the white tile floor of the room next door. At one end of the line, Maria Valenzuela unwraps loaves of donated wheat bread, and at the other end, Vickie Schnither packs the plastic-sealed sandwiches into cardboard boxes for delivery that morning.
In between, the volunteers use silver spoons to spread dollops of egg salad on the bread as they laugh, talk about weekend plans and swap recipes for tamales.
"The faster they talk, the faster they seem to work," said Ruben Reyes, coordinator of the Samaritans of St. Hilary Catholic Church, a group of about 30 that has made the sandwiches every Thursday morning for the last four years.
Each week, the fixings are different. The sandwiches also are made of bologna, potato salad or tuna--whatever Reyes has been able to round up. Twice a month, in addition to the sandwiches, the Samaritans pack fried chicken, biscuits and corn on the cob donated from a local restaurant.
Reyes took over the sandwich project when he began attending St. Hilary's about four years ago. He had turned to the church for help after alcohol problems led to divorce and the loss of his home. A priest enlisted him to help with the fledgling sandwich project.
Then, the Samaritans were producing about 300 sandwiches a week and the volunteers paid for the food.
Ruth Caamano, of Pico Rivera, remembers when she would bring dozens of boiled eggs from home to make egg salad at the church, and would buy huge jars of peanut butter and jelly at grocery warehouses.
"We did that for a couple of years," said Caamano, who serves as the group's secretary and bookkeeper. "Now we don't have to do that and it's a blessing."
Reyes began soliciting food donations and holding fund-raisers, such as dances and menudo breakfasts, and the operation increased its production fivefold. Caamano says the costs run about about $90 a week, in addition to the food donations. The church does not contribute money to the Samaritans.
Reyes' personal life also has taken a turn for the better. He was married last week at St. Hilary's, and plans a honeymoon in a few weeks.
Most of the Samaritans are St. Hilary parishioners, but the group also has members who live in Whittier, Montebello and Los Angeles. The 30 to 40 weekly volunteers are mostly middle-aged women.
Valenzuela, of East Los Angeles, became part of the Samaritans after her husband died about nine months ago.
"For therapy, my friends sent me to work here," Valenzuela said, passing a loaf of bread to a worker down the line. "It's great. I came alive again."
Valenzuela suddenly changed the subject as she joined a discussion about tamales at the next table. Several of the women said their skills as swift sandwich-makers came from years of experience preparing tamales.
"I'm from Texas where they make the tamales smaller," Valenzuela said.
"My family likes me to make them bigger," said Paula Esquivel.
"The ones with chicken and chile verde and cheese are the best," added Justa Ruvalcaba.
And the conversations continued, in English and Spanish, as hands quickly spread egg salad, occasionally lifted a coffee cup and passed sandwiches down the line. In less than two hours, 1,500 sandwiches are packed.
After the work is finished, the Samaritans clear the tables, dump the trash, wash their hands and set up chairs in a circle for a few moments of prayer. They join hands and ask blessings for those about to receive the food they have prepared.
About 200 sandwiches are then driven to the Whittier Ecumenical Food Center. The rest goes to the St. Vincent de Paul Center in downtown Los Angeles.
Father Chris Van Liefde, who worked in a downtown Los Angeles parish before joining St. Hilary's 1 1/2 years ago, said it is gratifying to see the Samaritans working for needy people who don't live in their area.
"I'm really happy to see that sensitivity," he said. "There are so many people who need the help out there."
Caamano recently drove her mother to a bank in downtown Los Angeles, passed by the St. Vincent de Paul Center and saw homeless people eating the sandwiches she helped prepare earlier in the day.
"It felt so good to see them," she said, "so I drove around the block again."