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Building Soup-er

For 9 years, Maria Dzida has tirelessly collected goods for a weekly meal program at a Santa Ana parish, meeting an angel or two along the way.


Maria Dzida has grown accustomed to begging--for food, for candy, for socks, for money, for anything she can use to serve the hungry and the homeless who come to the Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen.

For nine years, Dzida has volunteered to run the kitchen, which serves a hot lunch every Saturday to 300 to 400 people at St. Joseph Parish school in Santa Ana. Because of her efforts to secure donations of all kinds, Loaves and Fishes has a reputation as a gourmet soup kitchen.

"That's the word on the street," Dzida said as she dived into the kitchen pantry and pulled out a jar of mustard. "Look. We even have Grey Poupon!"

Keeping the pantry stocked occupies much of Dzida's time. The 46-year-old mother of four spends 20 to 60 hours a week rounding up supplies for the kitchen. Her busiest time, of course, is the holiday season, when soup-kitchen clutter takes over the garage of her Costa Mesa home.

She constantly is soliciting donations from members of her church, St. Simon and Jude in Huntington Beach, and the students who attend the parish's elementary school. With the money donated to the kitchen, she shops.

Once or twice a week, you can find Dzida at a discount warehouse buying food in bulk. Early Saturday mornings, she stops by Lucci's, an Italian delicatessen in Huntington Beach, where she picks up donations of leftover bread.

When she pulls into the courtyard of St. Joseph school, her van is usually jammed to the roof with supplies.

On a recent Saturday, the kitchen overflowed with about 40 helpers, all volunteers and many recruited by Dzida herself. There was 73-year-old Bob Braden, who has worked at soup kitchens throughout the world over the last 43 years. And 9-year-old Mark Oseguera, who tagged along with Joe FitzGerald and Nelma Natividad, a thirtysomething couple who met two years ago at the soup kitchen and plan to marry in March.

Everyone was absorbed in preparing the meal: assembling bologna sandwiches, tossing onions and beans into the soup, chopping watermelon, heating cheese dip for the nachos.

Dzida, a tall woman with a calm demeanor, kept the chaos in check, steering people to various tasks from folding napkins to slathering whipped cream on ice cream sundaes. Whenever a question arose, volunteers called her name:

"Maria, how many slices of cheese do you want on the sandwiches?"

"Maria, how much water goes into the iced tea mix?"

"Maria, are there any more doughnuts?"

Somehow, at the scheduled hour of 11 a.m., the hot lunches were ready. Plates loaded with food were doled out to about 300 people who filled the school courtyard. There were mothers with children in strollers, homeless men and women with everything they own piled in shopping carts, and people who slept in chairs until it was their turn to collect their meal.

Some had come as early as 6:30 a.m. But each person who arrived got a number so there was no need to rush the food line.

"At first I objected [to giving numbers] because I thought it would be demeaning, but the guests like it," Dzida said. "I think it gives them some stability. They might not know where they're getting their next meal, but they know where they are in line."

All who come to the kitchen are called guests. Volunteers greet them with a handshake and a smile. About half of them live on the streets, Dzida said. The others are primarily Latino families who live in the neighborhood.

"In many cases, they walk quite a distance to get here," she said. "They represent the working poor. It's very difficult to live in Orange County and pay rent and buy food. [The soup kitchen] helps them stretch a tight budget."

Guests come for more than the food, though. For those who can't afford to go to McDonald's, Loaves and Fishes is a sort of family outing. Often, there are crafts set up for the children to enjoy while the parents mingle in the courtyard.

"There's a real community," Dzida said. "Here, someone knows their story--especially homeless people. They don't find this kind of acceptance on the street."

There's a core group of 10 regular volunteers at the soup kitchen, but their numbers can swell to as many as 70 on some Saturdays.

"The real gift of the soup kitchen is that it brings people into this neighborhood who ordinarily wouldn't step foot here," Dzida said. "They come from Mission Viejo, Corona del Mar, Huntington Beach--all over. A lot of relationships have formed across socioeconomic lines. We've really become a family."


With Dzida acting as liaison, an unusual sister-parish relationship has developed between St. Simon and Jude, an affluent church with about 5,000 families, and Santa Ana's St. Joseph, which she described as "a struggling inner-city church."

Dzida speaks often to fellow parishioners about the hungry, and over the years, they have responded.

"She's very charismatic and has drawn a lot of volunteers here," said Andy Saavedra, a volunteer who helped found the kitchen 12 years ago.

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