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James Allen Walker for WORLD

Jorge's mission

Compassion | A Queens bus driver helps over a hundred people eat good meals: 'God is the one who supports me'

Issue: "Hurtling toward havoc," Aug. 1, 2009

NEW YORK-Rain is pooling in the greasy trash on the sidewalk as Jorge Munoz drives up in his pickup truck. A group of men wait for him in the dark as he hops out, ties a garbage bag around a fire hydrant for trash, and opens the iceboxes in the cab of his truck, taking out a plastic fork and plunging it in the top of each Styrofoam container before he passes it to a man in line. A helper stands in the truck bed and hands out loaves of bread from white grocery bags. The men squat in the rain with their backs against a brick wall and eat.

By day, Jorge Munoz, 45, is a bus driver in Queens, New York. This is what he does every night.

It began four years ago, when he was waiting in his school bus at a summer camp and saw two men throwing away aluminum pans full of leftover food. Appalled at the waste, he asked if he could give it away. He noticed day laborers standing on corners waiting for work in the day and then waiting at night for the police to leave so they could sleep beneath a bridge. He asked if they ate. They said not if they didn't find work. So he started to feed them.

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Eight men at first, then two dozen by the second week. He fed three dozen the first year, 60 the second, and around 80 the third year. In the last few months, he said that number has jumped to over a hundred because of the economy. Instead of just day laborers, he feeds the homeless, people just out of work, and people struggling to pay for both rent and food-"people from China, Russia, Poland, Americans, Egyptians, people from Africa, Korea." Some give him a little money in return.

Munoz himself came to America in the 1980s with his sister Luz and his mother, a tiny woman who smiles apologetically for her minimal English. Jorge himself is short, too, and roughened by a lifetime of work. He's been awake since 5 a.m. "Sometimes I get home around 5:00, 5:30 a little bit tired," he said, "but every time I get tired I put myself in that position. I just put my energies and-'OK, let's go. They waiting. They gonna be waiting for food.'"

His mother lets him turn her home into a storage room, stuffing freezers full of meals in aluminum pans. The living room brims with boxes of oatmeal, bags of rice, a box of onions, powdered ice tea, boxes of Frosted Flakes, lentils, and bags of coffee.

The kitchen-cluttered with iceboxes and pans of rice, meat stew, pasta, and vegetables-is big enough to walk single file. A woman (her salary paid by donation) cooks, and they pack up the food in Styrofoam containers-a little meat, a little rice, a bagel-and neatly pack them in the icebox. It has none of the slap-bang rush of the soup kitchens I've been to. It feels more like cooking a huge family dinner.

When Munoz himself was out of work for a month and a half, he prayed and the donations kept coming in. The recession has slowed the donations, so he's watching his budget and spending some of his own money to buy food. He always makes sure he brings $10 or $15 so if he runs out, he can run to a Chinese restaurant nearby and feed anyone who's left.

Munoz wishes he had a place for the men to stay so they could eat "like human beings." He is anxious about the younger men who lack an education and the medical care he can't always give them. Once he counted 23 men sleeping under the bridge in 10-degree weather. Once two men slept too long and someone doused them with gasoline and set them on fire.

One teenage boy named Hildago lived on the streets for nine months, had his face gashed with a beer bottle, and was afraid to go to the hospital. "I feel so bad," said Munoz. So he asked Hidalgo to help him with some heavy lifting in exchange for a place to stay. He helps cook the food and they give him a little money to send back to his family, said Munoz: "He is my right hand right now. . . . He is like the other son to my mom. He is my adopted son."

Another man finally found a steady job and a place to stay, and he came back and gave Munoz $20 to thank him for his care. "Things like that make me be moved to do more and more," Munoz said. "God is the one who supports me."

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