CONCORD, CALIFORNIA–David Gerson is in the mood to reminisce as he sits behind the wheel of an unremarkable, aging Volvo station wagon with a coffee stain on the passenger seat. It is hardly the type of car usually driven by successful corporate tax lawyers who negotiate billion-dollar mergers and acquisitions in Silicon Valley. David, 62, however, is what some might call a reformed lawyer.
“I never defined myself as a lawyer,” he says of the 25-year stint that led to a partnership in a high-powered San Francisco law firm. “It never quite fulfilled me enough.”
Instead, David retired from his law practice and embarked on a new career as the executive director of Loaves and Fishes of Contra Costa, a nonprofit organization that provides free meals in a safe environment in five East Bay Area dining rooms. Since taking the reins in 2011, David has steered an organization that had been struggling, post-recession, with reduced funding and increased demand for services, toward greater stability. Beyond that, his fresh perspective, provided by his experience among the corporate sharks of Silicon Valley, has led to a strategic shift toward forming partnerships with other nonprofit, faith-based, and government organizations.
A number of those partnerships provide free meals to programs helping those in need—providing day shelters or mental health services. Increasingly, however, Loaves and Fishes is using its dining rooms to host organizations that offer services ranging from health care and job training to transitional and permanent housing for homeless veterans. David says that the people who come to the dining rooms for meals often have no access to health care, need training in order to find jobs that pay a livable wage, and are, in some cases, homeless. It was a natural step to efficiently connect them with available services.
It’s a strategic shift aimed at addressing need in the community beyond just a single meal. It’s also a shift that might not have happened without a keen mind honed by an efficiency-minded profession. David, however, is too modest, and he dismisses that idea.
“We didn’t invent [the integrated services approach],” he says, shaking his head. “It’s being done by lots of other organizations, I just recognized that we seem well suited to it.”
Actually, this approach isn’t widely done in the suburban county of Contra Costa, and the effort is meeting broad support. This has been adding fuel to Loaves and Fishes’ growth, which hasn’t been without its challenges.
“The hardest challenge for me was going out to our dining rooms and seeing people who were living in poverty, and then every evening driving back over the hill into Lafayette,” he says of the disparity between his affluent neighborhood and the problems so close at hand. “It really hit me hard.”
Facing those challenges on a daily basis is made easier, David says, by what Loaves and Fishes can do for people.
He recalls the time a woman called his office one evening, just as he was about to leave for the day. She told him that her family had run out of food and had nothing to eat that night. Loaves and Fishes’ kitchen and dining rooms were already closed, but David got her number and told her to stop by in the morning, and a box of food would be waiting for her. He then emailed James, the kitchen manager—only to realize that James was still in the kitchen, working late, too, and he was able to put a box of food together for delivery only an hour later.
“That kind of ability to make an impact, immediately, keeps me focused and excited about having an effect on people’s lives,” he says.
David’s desire to act as a positive force for change speaks to an infectious optimism he traces to his childhood. “I came of age in the Sixties,” he says with a gentle smile. “I’ve always felt, from those years, a broader sense of community. It felt empowering to be part of a larger whole and to treat everyone as an equal and provide opportunities to everyone.”
Even during his years as a lawyer, David volunteered in his community. He was on the board of Shelter Inc., a nonprofit focused on ending homelessness in Contra Costa County and a current partner of Loaves and Fishes. He also became involved in his local school district, where he is still an elected board member. His long-held desire to volunteer and to improve his community never quite found resonance within his previous work environment. He’s quick to add that his former partners were good people and extremely skilled lawyers willing to provide generous financial support to community causes. They simply never understood his desire to be directly involved.
“I am, I guess you’d call it, a bleeding-heart liberal,” he says with a shrug. “It hurts me to see someone who hasn’t had the opportunities that I’ve had.
So, each morning David climbs into his trusty Volvo and heads out to feed those who are hungry and at the same try to help them access opportunities to improve their lives beyond just a single meal.
Want to Get Involved?
Loaves and Fishes of Contra Costa welcomes food and monetary donations, as well as volunteers. For information, visit http://www.loavesfishescc.org.
Help battle hunger in your community. For a list of food banks in the US, visit http://feedingamerica.org.
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