- Associated Press - Sunday, August 16, 2015

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - It was a hot afternoon in August. The regular lunch crowd at Mi Cocina de Amor on Charleston’s West Side had dispersed, but owners Frank and Julia Gonzales had plenty of other hungry people they intended to feed.

After loading up their SUV with stacks of fresh, warm burritos, they took a trip around town, handing out tortillas packed with beef or chicken, rice, beans and spices to anyone - no matter their situation - who may have missed a meal.

“We’re not categorizing anybody,” Frank said.

“Whether they’re there because they’re walking to work or whether they’re there because they live around the corner under a tree, we don’t know. All we know is that there are hungry people out there.”

“You can tell if someone looks like they could use a hand,” Julia said.

The Gonzaleses first started their “burrito runs,” which by now have morphed into a project they call Habitat Against Hunger, on a snowy day in December.

Weather problems had forced the restaurant to close, but they were already prepped and ready to serve a lunch rush. Rather than let the food go to waste, the couple decided to wrap up what they had and, in true Christmas spirit, give it away.

“We decided that we were just going to distribute the food that we had,” Frank said.

“We knew that as Christmas got closer that we’d be closed due to weather, so we just made up burritos. We rolled up all of our ground beef, rice, beans, shredded chicken - everything that was easily transported and consumed - and we took off in my FJ Cruiser, put it in four-wheel drive, and took them all over the city. It was like the best Christmas gift to ourselves.”

The experience left such a good impression on them that they decided to continue the runs on a periodic basis.

“We don’t really do the structured thing,” Frank said.

“We have a few spots where people expect to see us, and now as we drive up they recognize my vehicle,” he added.

They’ve found no shortage of hungry people to feed, particularly those who don’t live in area shelters. Most of their runs come after other free food services have closed for the day.

It was during one of their runs about two months ago that Frank and Julia met Randy Simley, a 51-year-old from Powellton, who had been living on the streets of Charleston for the previous three months.

“A lady we gave a burrito to said that there was a gentleman on the park bench that might want one,” Frank said.

But it wasn’t food that Simley wanted.

“I handed him one, and he said, ‘I appreciate that, but you know, what I really need is a job,’” Frank said.

“I appreciated them passing out food for those that are hungry, but at the time, I wasn’t hungry because I had just left Manna Meal,” Simley explained.

Recently released from prison after seven years for burglary, Simley admitted to some mistakes back when he was “young and dumb,” and said he was trying hard to turn his life around now.

Frank and Julia pointedly haven’t asked about his background.

“It was never my business to ask him . at that point he was just a guy looking for a job,” said Frank, who told Simley to come into the restaurant for an interview.

Simley showed up the next day and was hired.

“He was as qualified as anyone for an entry-level dishwasher job,” Frank said.

“He’s just another person trying to make it in life. I’m not trying to make him feel like a project or something, because he’s not. He’s just a guy who got a job because he needed a job.”

And by all accounts, he’s been pleasant to work with and has done a good job in his time at the restaurant.

“He hasn’t missed a shift. He does a good job .. we’ve been teaching him how to prep. I’ve been teaching how to make salsa and chips and assemble tacos. He’s learning the kitchen,” Frank said.

Simley has now worked at Mi Cocina for six weeks and has moved up to a position as an evening cook. He’s saving money to rent an apartment.

“I work as many hours as I possibly can,” Simley said. “Although I am homeless, I am not looking for a handout.”

And the Gonzaleses don’t think of what they’re doing as a handout.

“We’re just doing our thing, and that works for us,” Frank said. “And it’s also working for the community on a small scale.”

“It’s not just about feeding somebody,” Julia said. “It’s about being gracious to them and making them feel comfortable.”

While they aren’t actively seeking donations for Habitat Against Hunger, Frank said he and Julia have received a few inquiries from people looking to help and a couple who have already contributed to the cause.

“We’ve received $100 to date in donations and a case of tortillas,” donated by one of the restaurant’s suppliers, Frank said.

Since all the food at Mi Cocina is made fresh daily, Frank sees the burritos as a better way to rehash what hasn’t been used during the day.

“There are many ways to reuse product, but every now and then we take it and turn it into food for people that don’t have any,” Frank said.

“I don’t see excess. I see enough for everybody.”

“It’s a good thing that they’re doing,” Simley said. “It’s something other restaurants should do because there are quite a few hungry people out there.”

For more information on Habitat Against Hunger, visit www.habitatagainsthunger.com or call Frank Gonzales at 304-951-2095.


Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, https://wvgazettemail.com.

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