Theresa volunteers in Wellspring’s kitchen every Tuesday – preparing salads and fresh fruit for the center’s nutritious morning meal.
“The women who come to Wellspring, I think they call Wellspring the poor woman’s Starbucks because they come here, they get coffee and they get friendship,” Theresa said. “They get help if they need it – counseling, diapers or baby food – whatever we have, they are welcome to it.”
Wellspring isn’t the only place where Theresa gives back through cooking. Once a month, she makes dinner for the guests at Sister Nora’s Place, a shelter located at Loaves and Fishes which serves women with a history of homelessness, trauma and mental illness.
“We stay for a little while,” she said. “Sometimes we play Mexican trains or bingo. We limit it to three games and then we give them little prizes like a pair of socks or a shampoo.”
Theresa says that her volunteer duties gift her with a greater understanding of human frailty and weakness. They are lessons in compassion.
“You learn about people,” she said. “Some people are in bad situations because of their own choices, but some are in the same situations because of abuse or unemployment. Every person has their own story.”
Theresa has known Sister Judy since they attended St. Philomene’s Grade School. Now, Theresa is 76 years old and a great grandmother.
She is a survivor of Guillain-Barre Syndrome, the syndrome thought to have crippled Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Andy Griffith had Guillain-Barre too.
Guillain-Barre syndrome is an infection of the nervous system around the spinal cord. The syndrome can result in paralysis and the loss of muscle function.
At 33 years old, Theresa was working a busy job for the state in the Highway Patrol Office. One day, she noticed that she could barely climb the stairs to get to her office. The next day at work, her coffee cup was too heavy for her to lift and she couldn’t carry her lunch tray back to her desk. Her mom drove her to Kaiser Permanente Hospital and she was immediately hospitalized on the fifth floor.
“The very first night I stayed there a man died,” she said. “The next night, another man died. The third day, I was walking around a corridor outside and there is this little happy old man and he is carrying an IV, walking around to get his exercise. I talked to him for a few minutes and I told him about the two deaths next to me and he said, ‘Oh well, that happens, they put all of the hopeless cases up here.’”
Luckily, Theresa’s doctor was the nation’s leading expert on Guillain-Barre Syndrome. She was hospitalized for five days. It took Theresa four weeks to recover from the syndrome and while she was out of work, she had to apply for food stamps. She had to fight to get the food stamps even though her five children were hungry and she was temporarily disabled. Now, Theresa is in full-health.
“I can’t imagine how hard it is for the guests of Wellspring to give their whole life and to have to say that all they need is help for a little while,” she said. “Women don’t have children to get Welfare, they have children because they are a gift from God.”
What have you learned as you’ve moved through life?
“Not to be so critical and not to be so judgmental because I am,” she said. “The more you give, the more you get. At Sister Nora’s Place you see – gee – this could be me and you thank God that it isn’t so you try to help, it’s like they say, ‘There but for the grace of God.’”