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Style Magazine

Loaves & Fishes

May 09, 2011 11:12AM ● By Style

Photos by Dante Fontana

Twenty-five years ago, Joan Burke was a Loaves & Fishes volunteer assigned to Maryhouse, which at the time sheltered approximately 50 homeless women in need.

Sadly, this number spiked to 1,500 in 2010 and is just one sobering reality that has Burke, now director of advocacy for Loaves & Fishes, naturally concerned. But she also bears witness to humanity’s most affirming quality: the intrinsic need to extend oneself – free of judgment or agenda.

As one of the region’s principle facilitators of good will between communities and its citizens, Loaves & Fishes – a Sacramento-based nonprofit founded in 1983 to feed and shelter the area’s homeless, while providing them with access to cycle-breaking programs and soul-nourishing support – is committed to providing a container for this “very direct helping” to thrive. Truly grassroots, Loaves & Fishes is a private charity that does not solicit or accept government money, but rather sources funds from local donors and relies heavily on volunteers and small staffs to run its core facilities and affiliate programs.

“Everything we are able to offer at Loaves & Fishes is because of the Sacramento community,” says Burke, who credits the organization’s longevity and the support it receives to living in a city still small enough to stay connected. “It’s a very caring community, and we see that again and again.” True to form, 10,000 volunteers annually walk through the doors of Loaves & Fishes, where they are encouraged to parlay their time into activities to which they feel drawn. Among the most eager volunteers belong to the younger set; adolescents whose “hearts are open” and “minds particularly acute,” explains Burke, adding that small groups of individuals who act in specific ways for the benefit of others is a universal benefit to all.

Advocacy and mental health services, as well as providing shelter and the distribution of hot meals, are among the many diverse services that Loaves & Fishes supplies. Amazingly, many of the organization’s programs began as brainchildren of volunteers who spotted a need, developed an idea and oversaw its implementation. Most notably is the Mustard Seed School, which provides free, private education for the children of families trying to get back on their feet, so that a student’s schooling is not interrupted, or worse, forsaken. In addition, Loaves & Fishes also incubates other programs – Cottage Housing and Woman’s Empowerment, for example – that now operate independently.

More than effective, these programs, and all ancillary efforts put forth by Loaves & Fishes, mirror the social and economic hardships of an increasing number of individuals, including families, the elderly, and both young and Vietnam-era veterans, many who need treatment for post traumatic stress disorder. Mental health and addiction are perennial contributors to homelessness, but so too are rises in rental housing costs and job losses.

For those facing these challenges and others, Loaves & Fishes continues to serve as a beacon of hope where hope is scarce.

For more information, including how to get involved, visit