The Coast News Group
Craig "Pelon" Mercer has been the chef at Brother Benno's for 14 years
Cities Community Oceanside Oceanside Featured Region

Local foundation dishes up service with a smile

OCEANSIDE — It’s 10 a.m. on Saturday and Brother Benno’s is hopping. There are no parking spots left on the street for blocks around the headquarters on Production Avenue. The line to get inside for breakfast winds around the building.

Inside, volunteers are filling plates as quickly as the line can move.

To the uninitiated the scene looks a little chaotic, but everyone else knows it is just another day at the Oceanside organization that feeds about 250 homeless and low-income citizens six days a week. The mood is jovial with lots of smiles and laughing.

Everything is under control.

This organization has been around for 35 years and is run mostly by volunteers. While there are plenty of people willing to help, at times volunteers with special skills are needed. Right now those who have warehouse experience are needed, especially if they know how to use a fork lift.

Sandwich makers are needed because of the number made each day for guests to take away with them. Drivers with strong backs are required to pick up donations from grocery stores each day. Each box can be pretty heavy and multiplied by several stops a person’s back might start wincing.

And Helen Parsons, who heads volunteers at the thrift shop, says she needs people to work, but they need to take a tour of the facility beforehand. A tour is set for 9 a.m. on the first Saturday of each month.

Besides volunteers, men’s clothing is always needed and if a club, group or organization would like to get involved, they could sponsor a sleeping bag drive, said Dennis Pinnick, outreach specialist.

And Parsons said not to forget our best four-legged friends. Pet food donations are gladly accepted.

Pinnick and Darryl Harris, operations manager, are graduates of the men’s program at Brother Benno’s. They once were alcohol and drug addicts with no future themselves. After completing the program, they both returned to Brother Benno’s to help others.

“The magic is in serving others,” Harris said.

Pinnick calls it “my passion.”

The organization is named for a Benedictine Monk named Benno Garrity who regularly distributed bread to street people. Harold and Kay Kutler opened a space they owned to him for a soup kitchen in downtown Oceanside. The first meal was served on Oct. 21, 1983, with Brother Benno supplying a huge pot of soup himself. As time passed the services grew along with the number of people needing them. The organization outgrew its original home and now is a warehouse on Production Avenue.

Now besides the recovery programs for men and women, meals are offered Monday through Friday at 6:30 a.m. and on Saturday at 10 a.m.

Food boxes, sack lunches and clothing are available and showers with the soap, shampoo and the like provided. The guests can do their laundry.

One of the difficulties of being homeless is not having an address where mail can be sent or a telephone call can be answered, so those services are available at the center. And help is provided with replacement and care of identification documents needed for basic services like a California Identification card.

Brother Benno runs on donations and grants with just a small amount from the government. Only 3 percent of the staff is paid, the rest are volunteers and those going through the substance abuse programs who are required to work at the center.

Harris said that although their guests are transient, he estimates about 80 percent of them are successful in withdrawing from drugs and alcohol.

He said when he first arrived 14 years ago, most of the guests were homeless street people. Over the years the face of the clients have changed and include the working poor, single mothers with children, senior citizens and a majority of homeless mentally ill.

The Brother Benno Foundation is at 3260 Production Ave. in Oceanside. To learn more, call (760) 439-1244 or visit the website at