Monday, August 16, 2010

From Woodhaven to the White House

By Patricia Adams

“I always remember one thought my mother taught me from my childhood. If you share, you’re OK with God.” For Jorge Munoz of Woodhaven, the words of his mother have led him on a journey of incredible sharing over the last six years. It was back then that Munoz, a school bus driver, was passing the corner of Roosevelt Avenue and 73rd Street in Jackson Heights. He noticed day laborers gathered at the street corners. They had no homes and they had nothing to eat.

As Munoz drove home, he carried with him the thoughts and the memory of those homeless and hungry faces. Shortly after that, Munoz, his mother and sister, Luz, started what they called a “little meal program for the guys.”

Munoz remembered the first week he returned to Jackson Heights to deliver meals—it was the summer of 2004 and there were eight people who came. “The next week we had about 24,” he recalled. Over the course of more than 2,000 days since he began, Jorge Munoz, his family and their volunteers have served more than 120,000 meals on the same street corner. Every night—without fail—in rain, snow, bone chilling cold or extreme heat, they are there to feed the masses that form an organized line alongside Munoz’ white pick-up truck.

The number of nights Munoz has personally missed since he started can be counted on one hand. The most recent came on August 4—instead of Roosevelt Avenue, he was spending the evening on Pennsylvania Avenue as a guest of the President of the United States at the White House.

Jorge was one of 13 recipients who travelled to Washington D.C. to be awarded the Citizen’s Medal, created 40 years ago to recognize Americans who have performed exemplary deeds of service for their country or their fellow citizens. The Medal is among the highest honors a civilian can receive.

President Obama welcomed the winners to a reception in their honor, at what he called "one of his favorite events." We are here to recognize the winners of the Citizen's Medal. It is one of the highest honors a President can bestow," declared the President. "These men and women have performed exemplary deeds of service. Their lives stand as shining examples of what it means to be an American. Today we have an opportunity to say thank you and offer them a small token of our appreciation."

Commenting on the great diversity among those receiving the award, the President pointed out that although they come from very different backgrounds and from every corner of the country, they are united by something very special. "These people didn't just shake their heads and keep on walking. They saw a wrong and tried to right it. They saw a need and tried to meet it; a problem and tried to solve it. They saw suffering and took it upon themselves to comfort others in need. The determination they share is what unites them and makes them so special." Laughter filled the audience when the President joked about the fact that the women recipients outnumbered the men—"I guess that shows us who really gets stuff done in the neighborhood."

"When Jorge Munoz saw homeless men gathered on a street corner with nothing to eat he could have rolled up his windows and driven away," said President Obama. "Instead he came home from his job as a school bus driver and started cooking hot meals for anyone who was hungry. These days, the Angel of Queens serve over 140 dinners every night."

In a conversation with Munoz at the ceremony, President Obama inquired about what Jorge does and what it means to him. "I see them smile at me. That is my payment. It's all I need," responded Munoz.

And so Munoz, now back from the White House, will continue to travel to the same street corner. On any given night you can stop by to watch the Angel of Queens in action. An unassuming presence at just 5’2”, , he is greeted by the line of patient, hungry people standing and waiting for his arrival. For most on the line, there has been no other meal since Jorge’s visit the night before.

“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.

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 six 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.”

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