Suddenly out of work as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the United States, sous chef Augustina Aviles stopped cooking for customers and instead started feeding her homeless neighbors.
"We started on Easter Sunday 2020, it was really random," Aviles said about herself and mother Kelly Vargas.
"I got laid off from my job. We were in the height of the pandemic and something just came over me to go out and do some good. Someone suggested feeding the homeless but at first I wasn't sure. I've never done anything like that in my life. I didn't even realize how many people we had on the streets. I went to the grocery store and made about fifty sack lunches and drove around for a while. I didn't know where to start. So I called my mom and we went downtown to the bridge right next to McDonald's. We had a line form quick and we ran out of food in ten minutes. Fifty sack lunches — ten minutes — gone, and we still had about ten people waiting for food, so we ran up to McDonald's and grabbed food to get them fed."
Augustina made a post on Facebook about her experience and what she witnessed and support came quickly. A donation of food allowed Augustina to feed over a hundred people the following day and she learned even more about the people and their stories.
"We were just blown away. People started telling us that churches had to stop feeding and places had to close their doors due to the pandemic. They had no resources and no idea how they were going to survive. I heard outrageous stories. That's when we decided to go full throttle. Like, we really need to be out here, this is insane. All these people are so grateful for just a little bit of help. I never knew it was so bad out there. People in this awful, down-and-out situation and they just welcomed us. Before long, people started calling my mom 'mom.' She's become a real presence out there. When we go to different spots calling out for her, 'Hey mom, can I have a hug?' as soon as they see her," she said.
For Aviles, having her mother partner with her in this project is very special. It allows her to spend valuable time with her mother, who suffers from short-term memory due to a brain tumor.
"Having my mom come is pretty dope because most of these people don't have any type of mom or dad relationship anymore. They've lost a lot and sometimes all you want is a hug from your parents, so she's gained a lot of popularity out there because of her hugs. And just listening to them, because a lot of them out there could be in tears having severe mental breakdowns either from lack of food, lack of medication or just severe mental illness. She gives them that physical touch that they need and a lot of people won't offer,” Aviles said.
"I love them all. They're all like my babies," said Vargas. "Everyone deserves love."
While she sets up feeding sites in populated areas, more often Augustina drives around delivering food to those who need it. She's learned their stories, where they frequent and what they need. She's set up partnerships with Pet Food Pantry of Oklahoma City to bring food to people with pets, and in her free time, she collects unwanted items that serve as valuable tools to someone living in homelessness such as backpacks, tents and clothing. During the cold months, Augustina and a few friends take crafty steps to help their homeless friends stay warm.
"We went all MacGyver to help. We created alcohol heaters out of trash. It's such a simple thing but it makes a big impact. Since I work in a kitchen, we get a lot of #10 cans. We drill holes in them then put a dog food can in the middle, tissue paper, alcohol, rocks on the inside to fold it down, and a little handle made with a clothes hanger. They make pretty efficient little stoves/heaters that can keep people warm and from freezing to death. People started telling each other about it, so in times of extreme cold, I would drive around and people know my truck, so they'd stop me and ask for a heater. Something literally made from almost nothing but trash and rocks and helps them so much,” Aviles said.
Now entering its third year, Bagz of Luv has seen many changes in the people they serve. While some have managed to get off the streets, the city's diverse homeless population has grown exponentially.
"Some of our friends have got off the street and there's some of them that actually aren't going to leave the streets. It's the lifestyle that they've chosen. But most of them, it was just one mistake, one missed bill got him to that circumstance. The youngest person I've met was 13 years old and the oldest person was 83 years old. And the thing about it is when your benefits labs, and everything was shut down, how are they supposed to renew that? You're 83 years old, you don't know how to use a frickin’ computer. One of my biggest arguments is that we need caseworkers on the streets, not in offices. Many of these people don't know how to use computers and they get confused. I've helped several people apply for benefits and file their paperwork. Technology like it's been a game changer but not everyone knows how to use it," Aviles said.
This work has changed Augustina's heart and the lives of those around her and she hopes it will change more.
"I'm so much more grateful. You don't realize how blessed you are and I don't have a lot. But I'm thankful for air conditioning and having a home and having a good relationship with my parents and all the small things like that. This is something that's changed my dad's heart too. In the past, he used to be hardened towards people on the street. Now he helps them. The people around me, friends and co-workers get excited to help and I'll go outside and there'll be cases of water on my truck to give out,” Aviles said.
Bagz of Luv recently became a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit to create more transparency for donors and to gain more reach. Augustina would like to make serving her community her primary focus and hopes the non-profit will continue to grow.
"I want to do this full-time but I have a pretty small kitchen, so I can only do so much," Aviles said. "My goal is to get mobile and get a food truck to take on-site and serve many areas, to actually cook these people some good food. I feel like this was all put in place for a reason. I've been in the food industry for 28 years, cooking for anywhere from 100 to 5,000 people, so I'm used to cooking for the masses. You can do so much with just a little bit of stuff from the kitchen. For example, people in the streets love fried egg and bologna sandwiches, like really love them, and it's so simple to make. But our main goal and passion is just to get out there and love on them and show them love. Because so many of them are just broken."
To learn more, visit facebook.com/bagzofluv