Alma Santos

Childhood need sparks compassion

Each day, when Alma Santos welcomes families to Our Lady of Guadalupe Center on Columbus’ West Side, she sees more than just clients looking for a little assistance from the food pantry there. She sees a reflection of herself and her own family.

“I see my mom in the parents, and I can see myself as a little girl in the children,” said Santos, the center’s coordinator.

That’s because Santos was once in their position—part of a family that was struggling and homeless and in need of a helping hand.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Center, a program of Catholic Social Services, serves approximately 3,000 people in the Hispanic community in Franklin, Delaware, Fairfield and Madison counties. The center provided nearly 100,000 meals to families in 2017.

In May 2017, Our Lady of Guadalupe moved to a new building that provides three times the space and more services.

“The food is what brings them in, because they need food,” Santos said. “We try to provide them with services that will nourish their spirit.”

The services include case management, job-search assistance, nutrition and English classes, health screenings, legal aid and linking clients to appropriate community social service organizations.

“There are more than 400 food pantries in Central Ohio, and we are one of the few that have staff members who can speak Spanish,” Santos said. “We are the only food pantry in our area that primarily serves the Hispanic population.”

Santos, 38, grew up in a migrant family that split time between Mexico and Southern California working in the fields. After the family moved permanently to California, Santos’ parents divorced when she was 10 years old. She, her mother, Catalina, and her two siblings, Imelda and Emmanuel, ended up homeless, sleeping at shelters when they could and on benches in Washington Park in Escondido when necessary.

She didn’t tell anyone about her background, even when she joined Our Lady of Guadalupe in 2010 after working as a volunteer with Catholic Social Services. “I never said anything about that because it was too embarrassing, at least to me,” Santos said. “I thought, ‘Who would be proud to be a homeless person?’ ”

Last year, Santos traveled to California with her children and visited the park. “They couldn’t understand why I was getting so emotional,” she said. “I was feeling sick to my stomach because I could hear myself as a child crying and hear my mother crying and hear her praying.”

It was then that she finally felt free to tell her children her full life story.

“It was closure for me,” she said.

Santos has an innate spirit of compassion and drive to help others, said Rachel Lustig, CEO of Catholic Social Services. “ ‘Alma’ in Spanish means ‘soul,’ and that is such an appropriate name for her,” she said. “Because Alma truly is the soul and spirit of Our Lady of Guadalupe and she is the soul and spirit of the Hispanic community.”

Santos said the heart and inspiration of Our Lady of Guadalupe is her mother, who started operating the food pantry out of her van in 1999.

“I had moved to Columbus when I was 18, and I was so happy when I could bring the rest of my family here,” Santos said. “My mother had always told us, when we were visiting soup kitchens to get meals and staying at shelters, that she only considered it a loan and that someday she would find a way to pay it back.”

She paid it back by paying it forward.

“We were back on our feet, and my Mom started using all the money she earned from working to go to the grocery store, buy food and deliver it in person to families who were in need in our community,” Santos said.

“My mother never forgot about her ‘deuda’—her debt—that she needed to pay.”