Thursday, November 19, 2009

Woodhaven Man Nominated for CNN's Hero Award

Has Served 90,000 Free Meals to Hungry, Homeless

By Patricia Adams

The gathering starts to assemble around 8:45 pm. Five or six men stand in a cluster under the elevated train on Roosevelt Avenue at 73rd Street. By 9:00, there are ten more.

By 9:10 there are more than two dozen. They are waiting for the man who changed their lives. The man’s name is Jorge Munoz but many of those waiting simply call him Angel. The line continues to grow. By 9:40 there are more than 70 people waiting for the man they know will arrive to feed them shortly.

Many are clothed in the same way. They wear sweatshirts, their hoods up and drawn toward their faces. Some carry all of their possessions in a backpack. There are men and women. They range in age roughly from 17 to 70. They are predominately Hispanic, but a scan of the line offers evidence of an ample mix of other ethnicities. Some are homeless. They break up their time on the streets by stealing a few hours in the Emergency Room at Elmhurst Hospital or riding a loop on the train that takes about four hours. Some are day laborers who struggle to find work and must survive on the streets, others are victims of circumstance, left without food, proper clothing and in most cases, shelter.

There are those that sleep under the bridge off the BQE, still others shrink down in doorways, looking for any protection from the elements. Others in the crowd rent small rooms in the area or stay with friends and good Samaritans. As diverse as the group is, they have one thing in common—they are all hungry. Now they wait patiently, lined up along the street, two by two. And by the time the white pick up truck does arrive at the corner, there are more than 140 people to greet the man who has changed their lives.

They knew he would come. He has been doing so every day since the summer of 2004. Only once, in the winter of 2007, did he miss a day - a snow storm put his truck out of commission. He tried to get the food to his flock by public transportation, but it was suspended. That hardly matters - he is here now.

Jorge Munoz swings open the door of his Toyota pick-up truck and jumps out. He is an unassuming presence, just 5’2” tall. Before his feet hit the ground, you can hear it. “Jorge, buenas noches.” He quickly moves to the back of the truck where he uses the rear tire as a means to climb aboard. He immediately begins to untie the crates, boxes and coolers that store the night’s meal. Many on the line have not eaten since Jorge’s visit the night before.

There are four or five people there to help him serve the food. From the cab of the truck, supplies are brought out. Plastic forks and Styrofoam cups are passed to the servers. A huge cooler with two hundred cups of freshly brewed coffee rests on the extended tailgate. Bags of bread are opened and rest up against the side wall of the truck closest to the curb where the line of hungry mouths continue to wait patiently.

And so it begins. Jorge Munoz starts dishing out the evening’s fare. Roasted chicken with rice and beans. Those who have come to eat remain standing in an orderly fashion as they approach their turn in the line. First they choose their own bread from the open bags and move forward to accept their dinner directly from Jorge, then it’s off to the side of the line where another volunteer hands off the hot beverage of the evening, this time coffee, on other nights, hot chocolate.

“Vaya con Dios, mi amigo.” A passing cab driver shouts from his open window to Jorge who flashes a smile and waves. And there are others who pass by, honking their horns, offering words of praise for the simple man who means so much to so many.

It started back in May of 2004. Munoz, a school bus driver for Varsity Bus Company was on a field trip in Long Island. “I noticed some guys, walking toward a dumpster behind a restaurant,” he recalls. “They were throwing out perfectly good food so I got out of the bus to talk to them.” The conversation led Munoz to the owner of the restaurant who agreed to donate the food to Munoz instead of trashing it. “I knew what I was going to do. I was going to feed some guys that didn’t have nothing.”

His feelings for the immigrants that line the streets of Jackson Heights and other communities throughout Queens are rooted strongly in his own background. His father was killed in an accident outside the factory where he worked in Colombia. Jorge and his sister Luz were 9 and 10 at the time. “We didn’t have any money without my father. My grandparents brought food, but there was not enough.”

His mother, Blanca Zapata found it impossible to provide for her children so she left them with her parents and came to New York to make her way. She found a job as a live-in nanny for $120 a week in Bushwick, and in two years had saved enough money to bring her children to the US.

The son she brought to America has always had it in his soul to help. “He doesn’t want anyone to go hungry,” explains Blanca. She recalls a time back in Columbia when a man came to their house asking for food. “I told him I was sorry, that we didn’t have anything to give him.” There was barely enough for them, but Jorge took his dish, despite his mother’s protestations, and gave it to the man. “I told him that he needed to eat to be strong for school but he just looked at me and said, I’ll just eat bread.”

What began in his native Colombia came with Jorge Munoz when he and his sister joined their mother in New York to start a new life in the 1980’s. Now almost thirty years later he spends all of his time outside of working at Varsity dedicated to the people on the streets who have little or nothing to eat.

The explanation of what he does is fairly simple. “I got my moms, my sister, my nephew, my friends-a lot of members of my family out here - but these people are alone. At least now they feel like they have some family taking care of them — like somebody cares.”

His day begins at 4:45 am when he gets up and takes his daily food inventory. He leaves for work by 5:15 and is finished by about 5 in the afternoon. “I get home about 5:20 and rest for ten minutes. Then I take a cup of coffee and start my second job,” he says with a smile.

It is the second job which is the one that requires tremendous energy and stamina. It begins only after daily runs to various grocers and stops at churches, food factories, restaurants and pantries to pick up donations. Then the cooking begins.

Until last year it was Blanca that did most of the preparation, but now severe arthritis limits her. “The New York Times did an article in 2007,” after that Munoz says, an anonymous donor came to the rescue. “A successful man from Manhattan came and asked what I needed. I told him I needed someone to cook, he told me to hire someone and he would pay.”

And so Oliva Cortez, a woman from Munoz’ church took the job as the cook and joined Jorge, Blanca, his sister Luz and nephew Justin in the families quest to feed hungry mouths.

“When I started it was just eight guys. Two weeks later it was 24.” By the second year, Munoz says the number began to increase little by little. “About two years ago we were up to 60-80, but in the last eight months it grew to 90.” Now Munoz says he serves upwards of 140 meals every night.

Since beginning more than 90,000 meals have been served. During the summer, on some weekends and any other time he is off, there are also trips down to Flushing, Jackson Heights and Astoria to serve up breakfast in addition to the nightly dinners. Pancakes, French toast, waffles, fruit, iced tea and bottled water are handed out all along the streets where so many illegal immigrants gather in search of a day’s work.

Although Munoz spends his day on the road, there are many phone calls back to the house to check on the menus and the cooking. Sixty to eighty pounds of chicken, twenty-two pounds of rice, and about twenty pounds of pasta to make pasta salad are typical amounts for a standard night’s fare. On other nights, more than fifteen pounds of lentils will fill the containers with rice and vegetables. Monday night menus include forty to fifty pounds of pork served with rice and fifty pounds of beans. Twenty pounds of chopped meat mixed with rice, vegetables and pasta for another night. Six pounds of coffee and five gallons of milk act as the beverage of choice on a cold night. Depending on donations, there are fresh fruits and baked goods.

To a first time observer there is so much that overwhelms about this scene. The enormity of what this man is doing, the fact that he has been doing it for 5 and ½ years without fail, with a full compliment of help from his immediate family and at his own expense is not immediately comprehendible. It forces the question –Why do you do it? He smiles and begins to answer. “Why? I don’t know. God I think. What I say is everybody in this world has a mission. This is mine. For those who believe in God,” says Munoz, “it’s up to you whether you say yes or not--if you take your mission or not. My mission is this one.”

Another pause and he is ready to finish. “When I came to this country my mom was waiting for me. I had food. I had a bed. I had other family members. They have nothing. I am here for them.”

For all of his efforts — an ordinary man having an extraordinary impact — Jorge Munoz has been nominated as one of CNN’s Heroes. The winner of the contest will be awarded a $100,000 prize. There are ten people across the United States nominated for the coveted award. Forty-seven year old Woodhaven resident Jorge Munoz is one of the top ten. He will travel to Los Angeles at the end of this week for the awards ceremony.

Having no choice but to ask the predictable question—how much do you really want to win this?—Jorge’s answer was perhaps just as predictable. “How much do I want to win? More than anything.” Looking out at the people who stand and sit along the sidewalk devouring their daily bread Munoz got to the heart of the issue. “For me my prize is the hundreds of smiles and thank yous I get every day. For them the hundred thousand dollars means they will eat for another four and a half to five years.”

One of the privileges of community journalism is the opportunity to meet ordinary people who do extraordinary things. Jorge Munoz is at once definable as such. We encourage our readers to go to CNN’s website at to learn how to vote for Jorge through Thursday, November 19.

No comments: