THE BRONX - With a large cup of coffee in one hand and oversize Chanel sunglasses framing her delicate face, Alice Noriega could be just another New Yorker enjoying her Saturday morning. The hesitation in her every step and the dark clouds in the sky blocking out all sunshine are the only hints that something is amiss. Alice is blind and her path has not led her to a Manhattan café but to the free food and counseling services she receives at the Relief Bus.
Alice has been coming to the Relief Bus since 2003. The Bus was an idea that bloomed in the arid Texas desert two decades ago. In 1989, Richard Galloway, a successful entrepreneur found his carefully constructed life crumbling around him. His addiction to alcohol and cocaine was taking a toll on his marriage and on his soul. Finding no solace in wealth, Galloway and his wife, owners of three houses and eighteen cars, decided to turn to God.
“It was like God saying to me, ‘If you really want to know what I care about,’” Galloway describes, “‘this is it: set the oppressed free, share your food with the hungry, provide the homeless with shelter’” (Isaiah 58:6-12). So, Galloway left his life to move to New York and transform a yellow school bus into a mobile resource center to serve the city’s poor and homeless.
A non-profit organization, the Relief Bus has fed over 3 million people, connected 120,000 to help and hope, and mobilized 30,000 volunteers. Staff members raise a large portion of their own financial support and the organization is funded through the generosity of private donors.
“The Relief Bus connects people with different resources,” says 25-year old Lance Farrell, Outreach Team Leader. “We do shelter, we do free legal help, housing and immigration issues. We can get a free attorney, get someone to detox, get them into rehab. We connect them in that way. Pretty much any physical or spiritual need there is on the street, we try to meet. We try to get people on their feet. In whatever way that we can.” After 21 years of service, the Relief Bus now operates with two vehicles, alternating between three locations; Chelsea, South Bronx and Harlem.
It begins to rain as Alice reaches the South Bronx location, on the corner of Brook Avenue and East 148 Street, accompanied by her home attendant, Alma. As the rain pours steadily the bus comes to life. The day’s volunteers set up the bright red tent, makeshift tables and plastic stools that will later accommodate elderly residents sipping their soup and young children. Inside the bus, the steaming signature rice and vegetable soup is ladled into white Styrofoam cups and laid out on plastic trays; a line of hungry people is already forming outside.
The soup and the fresh Portuguese rolls have travelled a long way from the Elizabeth, New Jersey, kitchen where volunteers get together at 7:30am to prepare the day’s meal. Most of those impatiently congregating around the bus live much closer. There are young children toddling with their tiny hands clasped in their mothers’, old grandmothers dwarfed by giant umbrellas as they huddle together to avoid the rain and men who walk with a slight droop of shoulders.
The volunteers, a mix of Relief Bus staff and adolescents from an affiliated ministry, hand out clothes from the back of the bus; flashes of color on a gray, rainy day. Someone starts playing a song in a language somewhat foreign to America, but native to those gathering around. Keisha Pruer, a former drug addict and now Relief Bus volunteer, brings out some paint and brushes and soon the children are walking away with hot chocolates, and rainbows and butterflies painted on their faces.
People stop by, some stay a while; they like the sense of community. Some arrive as early as 10:00am and stay until the Bus takes off at 2:00pm. Most come for the soup and bread and leave quickly. The South Bronx is the Relief Bus’ busiest location. By the end of the day, 300 to 500 people will have stopped by.
Alice is not particularly fond of the soup. She prefers the sweet bakery goods that are specially set aside for her and the volunteers love her. Alice has come a long way from the first time she stepped inside the Relief Bus. “I’ve been coming ever since they began in this area. I just introduced myself one time and I got hooked,” Alice says. “Ever since 2003 or 2004 I’ve been coming every Saturday, except for the Saturdays when they are on vacation for the holidays and they take two Saturdays off.”
A former teacher, Alice had to abandon her job when she lost her eyesight to Lupus, a chronic inflammatory disease that can affect various parts of the body. Along with this loss came another when her husband of 27 years abandoned her. “I became blind and I felt so alone. Because a lot of my friends — I thought they were my friends — turned their backs on me,” Alice recounts. “I wasn’t worthy anymore, of being their friend. They weren’t around for me. I never received a phone call. If I needed help with something, getting something, getting around, going to church or coming back, anything like that, they were not there for me.”
And then Alice found the Relief Bus. “They received me with open hands and open arms. They don’t judge me, they didn’t judge me then and they don’t judge me now. I felt very comfortable. And I know that I could talk to them, whoever is here, about anything,” Alice says as a tear makes its way down her cheek.
“People at the Relief Bus have given me a lot of advice when it comes to my problems with family issues. Like for example my son does drugs,” she adds. “He was almost killed with gangs. They helped me when he got stabbed, [with] the hospitalization. They’ve helped me with my diseases. Well ‘the’ diseases, I shouldn’t say mine. The diseases. Because I have [Multiple Sclerosis], Lupus, Scoliosis and Osteos.”
“A couple of times I needed cash and they gave me 20 dollars if I had an appointment, to take a cab or something,” Alice continues. “They have helped me when I had a broken pelvis, they even drove me home and took me up the stairs, because I could hardly walk. I consider the Relief Bus part of my family.”
Alice is one of the few who were assisted by the Relief Bus in such a way that they are now able to give back. She volunteers as a Spanish translator, an invaluable asset in the South Bronx location, where the majority of beneficiaries are of Latin descent.
Edwin Vega, a stout and affable 57-year old Puerto Rican with salt and pepper hair, is another Relief Bus beneficiary-turned-volunteer. Upon a closer view a visible glaze covers his eyes and a slurring of speech is apparent. Edwin has been involved with the Relief Bus ever since he graduated from the Hope Christian Center, where he spent time recovering from his crack addiction. He now works as a teacher and supervisor at the Center, which sends addicts to the Relief Bus as part of their rehabilitation process.
“I like to help people that went through the same things that I went through, you know,” says Edwin. “Give by grace what by grace I received. If God did it with me then he can do it with them too. I tell the guys I teach in my program that as I was sitting in that seat as a student, it never came through my mind that I was gonna be here teaching now, you know.”
“I got a picture of me when I came in and right now I show it to the guys, and they say ‘now I really believe in God,’ because they see the way that I was, I looked like an eighty years old man! I looked bad, all messed up,” Edwin recounts. “And now you see me, you see that there is an example that the transformation works.”
Alice and Edwin are exceptions. Most of those coming to the Relief Bus are still in no position to give back; they need all the help they can get themselves. “Last week, there was a gentleman who had seen the bus before, but never stopped by.” Lance says as he continues to fill out the day’s paperwork. ”He came up to me and said that he needed to get into rehab. He had been smoking crack for the better part of twenty years and just felt the need for radical transformation.”
“He was about to be homeless, he was just really down and out and just felt like he needed to go for change. So I talked to him and said, ‘you know, we have to assess whether or not you are ready.’ If they are not ready, we are not going to send them. But we encourage them, and love them until they are ready,” Lance says. “We cannot try to force any change. When people need help, they know where to come every single week. And we are here, just waiting and serving.”
The Relief Bus’ success is assisting those in need comes in large part from the sense of trust and reliability they created in the South Bronx community. “We are at this same spot, every week, week after week,” says Lance. “Rain, snow, cold. This whole winter, brutal as it was, we only had to cancel once because it took four hours to dig out the bus.”
“People come to rely on us, not just as a source of food, but as a source of hope, strength, and stability,” he adds. “That’s how we build a relationship with the neighborhood, by being steady and giving [it] a place of stability. People can count on us, no matter what. Whether they need food, whether they need a hug, need to get into rehab, or if they ever need a lawyer, anything like that, we are here, week after week.”
For Alice and many other South Bronx residents, the Relief Bus Saturday visits are the highlight of their week. “I look forward to Saturdays just to come and say hello. I feel that I am missing something when I cannot come,” Alice says. “It’s like waiting for a Christmas present under a tree.”