About 20-30 volunteers gather at St. Leo’s in Solana Beach every Thursday to make sandwiches for the homeless and incarcerated in Tijuana. The local church has been hosting the program for the last 20 years. Photo by Lexy Brodt
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Church orchestrates sandwich program to feed the homeless and hungry in Tijuana

SOLANA BEACH — Sort bread into piles, slather on jelly, spread peanut butter, stack and repeat.

The task is routine, even mundane — but a group of North County interfaith volunteers gathered at St. Leo Mission Church in Solana Beach have made it a weekly ritual.

The 1,000-plus peanut butter and jelly sandwiches’ final destination? Downtown Tijuana, where a dedicated volunteer distributes the sandwiches to the city’s homeless and incarcerated.

The simple act of kindness involves a surprisingly extensive web of charitable acts: Lazy Acres market, two nearby Vons locations and Jersey Mike’s in Solana Beach donate large quantities of day-old bread, parishioners of St. James Mission Circle and St. Leo donate dozens of containers of jelly and peanut butter every Sunday, and about 20 to 30 volunteers from both churches bring all the pieces together weekly.

“Everyone does their part,” said parishioner and volunteer Stephanie Kowack.

The program is uniquely interfaith, with a number of youths from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also taking part. Their involvement is serendipitous — about five years ago, two Mormon missionaries were serving in the neighborhood when they saw well-known area parishioner Leonor Figueroa struggling to take out some trash from the church.

Known as a passionate force behind the program, Figueroa convinced them to take part — and Mormon missionaries in the area have been attending ever since.

“I love it,” said Aleda Smith, serving along with Marcie Cromwell. The two are from Utah and Idaho, respectively, and are in San Diego for the duration of their mission trips.

The next day, San Juan Capistrano resident Bill Luke transports the sandwiches made in Solana Beach — as well as another 400 made at his own church in Orange County — to several of Tijuana’s jails, as well as the river canal that runs through the city. The canal is oft known as the underbelly of the already ill-reputed city, the concrete home of individuals suffering from hunger, homelessness and drug addiction.

The delivery is a temporary salve for hundreds of homeless individuals in Tijuana, who often may not have seen a meal for days.

“They’re rejected in a lot of different ways,” Luke said. “But they’re just as worthy under the eyes of God as everybody else.”

On his weekly trips, Luke also distributes water, treats and sanitary products donated by his own church and St. James’ parishioners. In addition to distributing food in the jails, he also offers haircuts to the incarcerated — most of whom are in jail for short periods of time for small drug crimes, for example.

Luke said he has been making the journey for about 20 years. St. James’ Mission Cross has also carried on their sandwich program for 20 years, though prior to connecting with Luke, the church relied on a hodgepodge of willing volunteers to distribute the sandwiches in Tijuana.

Luke’s delivery mission stands in stark contrast to the task of the parishioners of St. James — though the North County volunteers tackle the work with zeal and alacrity. The parishioners may have not taken the trip themselves, but many have latched on to the activity as a way to help those in need, even though they will likely never meet them.

“I wish I could see their faces,” said volunteer Elizabeth Murphy. “It’s just a couple of hours out of the day, and it’s so rewarding to do this.”

Del Mar resident Anne Mery has been volunteering for the program with her mother Eithne Mery for the last two years. Eithne is in her 90s, the oldest participant among the group.

“I have to keep up with her, she’s the peanut butter queen,” said Mery. “We look forward to it … she enjoys it and so do I.”

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