Wayne J. Shaffer has touched their hearts and souls. They are the men, women, and children struggling on the fringes of society, living a hand-to-mouth existence on the streets of Santa Cruz, Calif.
For more than three decades, Shaffer, broker-owner of Shaffer and Associates in Santa Cruz, has devoted himself to nourishing the souls of the homeless and struggling. No matter what they’ve been through, he says, “It’s our duty to find resources for people in crisis.” The wellspring of his compassion is the Book of Leviticus (19:18): “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Resources and love are two things Shaffer has been giving in abundance since at least 1982, when he cofounded the St. Francis Catholic Kitchen. The kitchen serves hot lunch to 190 clients per day, Monday through Friday. Shaffer is president of the board of directors and still a frequent visitor, but at one time, he was a regular greeter, welcoming clients as they walked in the door. One day, in 1999, he struck up a conversation with a pregnant client and learned that she was living in her car.
For its temporary residents, Siena House is a refuge in a storm.
Asmara Gebre, 22, is entering the University of San Francisco’s nursing program in the fall of 2011. But just a few years ago, her life wasn’t looking so good. She was pregnant, homeless, and coping with an abusive boyfriend. Siena House put her on a better path—first toward earning a high school diploma and then to Cabrillo College, where she earned three associate’s degrees.
“The discipline I developed at Siena House, combined with the family atmosphere, helped me learn what it meant to love and respect myself,” says Gebre, whose daughter, Daijanae, is now nearly 5. “It was the first time I was in an environment where people believed in me and encouraged me to pursue an education. [Wayne] is the father figure I never had. He didn’t know me but was willing to help.”
Siena House has an annual budget of $200,000. Women pay a house fee of $150 per month, and all other funding comes from donations and an annual dinner auction. Shaffer personally donates $10,000 per year.
Once admitted to the home, the women must follow a strict set of rules. They must remain sober and have no addictions. They must do household chores and take turns preparing meals for up to 15 people. In addition to attending counseling sessions and house meetings, they learn computer skills and are referred to other agencies for educational and vocational training.
Like Gebre, many residents go on to school, find jobs, and form the kinds of mother-child relationships they see modeled at the Siena House. Shaffer works hands-on with residents to assess their needs and even helps when the toilets back up or there’s a leak in the roof.
“There are no strings attached to Wayne’s giving. He is a man who means what he says and does what he means,” says Siena House Director Sharron Rudell.
Meanwhile, the soup kitchen keeps going strong, serving 45,000 nutritious, free meals per year—and spreading the word that positive change is possible. “When you help people get off the streets and into a safe place with a meal, this is where it all begins,” Shaffer says. “People will listen if they have a full belly.”
People often ask Shaffer, who is married with two stepsons, how he can devote so much time to others. The answer for him is simple: How could he not?
“Someone will come up to you and thank you for something you did 10 years before,” he says, “and it makes you feel so good to know you made a difference in that person’s life.”