The Quakes and Wells Fargo are humbled and inspired by the amazing work of our frontline communities and neighbors in this time of crisis. Each week, we’ll be featuring and highlighting the work of one fantastic neighborhood hero, showcasing the great work they are doing and the organizations our community can rally around.
Additionally, a donation will be made to an organization or community project on behalf of each week’s hero. This week we will be donating to We See You San Diego.
Almost four years ago, the Cieslukowski family of five moved from Queens, New York, to San Diego. Laura, Kevin and their three daughters moved across the country for Laura’s job. After settling down in their new home in San Diego, the Cieslukowski family looked for ways to immerse themselves into their new community.
One of the ways they got involved was by visiting local churches. Kevin stumbled upon a church that hosted small dinners for members of the homeless community on Tuesday nights. It was a relatively small operation, and they fed roughly eight people each week. Their pizza dinners were a casual way to feed the hungry while developing genuine relationships.
After Kevin volunteered to help serve these meals, the whole family got involved in the operation. It didn’t take long for the event to become a frequent activity for the five of them to do together. “Tuesdays are my family’s favorite night of the week!” says Laura.
As attendance grew, there became an increasing need for a consistent group of volunteers, as well as a budget to match the growing expenses. “All of a sudden the word started spreading very organically,” says Laura.
In response to this growth, Laura and Kevin were advised that creating the dinner program as a nonprofit would be an effective way to utilize their resources and make the operation more fit for growth. Soon after, We See You San Diego was established.
We See You San Diego
Laura and Kevin founded the 501(c)(3) nonprofit We See You San Diego to continue serving the homeless community every Tuesday night.
“Three and a half years later, we have up to 200 people on Tuesday nights,” says Laura. “It has grown exponentially.”
Their goal is to make sure that these community members that are often marginalized and overlooked, feel seen, heard, cared for and loved. It is Laura's hope that whenever someone enters the church parking lot where the dinners are held, that they are met with a palpable feeling of love.
“We've never once missed a meal over the last three and a half years,” says Laura.
When Laura and Kevin took over leading the weekly event, they decided to serve meals that were substantial and delicious. “We should cook what we eat,” they thought.
Early on in the program, Laura and Kevin would make a double-sized portion of whatever meals they would be having in their home. But as the number of attendees has grown significantly over the years, they’ve relied on other volunteers to help prepare food, bring side dishes, and assist with the meal facilitation. Now, it can take up to 30 volunteers to make a Tuesday night dinner happen.
The community is treated to multiple-course meals, including vegetables, meats, desserts and beverages.
“A lot of the time, it’s the one time a week that they actually get meat or protein,” says Laura.
The Tuesday night dinners are unlike other free meal experiences. The individuals that come to get food are seated at tables in the church parking lot and are served by the volunteers. This mimics a restaurant-style dining experience that allows the individuals to interact with one another in a more personal setting. The staff and volunteers join the community once everyone is served which allows them to interact in a very special way.
“We want to give them the best we can because they’re worthy,” says Laura. “They’re people of value and they are so overlooked. We want to be there for them.”
In addition to providing great food and a fun dining experience, they occasionally have entertainment as well. Sometimes they will have live music during dinner, or hold raffles for community members to win prizes like gift cards to local restaurants.
“It’s about cultivating an environment where people can feel safe and loved,” says Laura.
Regardless of major holidays or COVID restrictions, We See You still feeds the community every Tuesday. Many places that usually offer free food to these community members were shut down during the start of the pandemic.
When COVID restrictions were first put in place, they worked with the San Diego police to ensure that they could still feed the community while operating within the health and safety guidelines of the county. They quickly adapted their dinner experience to serving to-go meals.
“They are definitely supportive of what we do,” Laura says. “They support us well.”
More Than a Meal
Feeding the unhoused is just one element of a larger and deeper mission. We See You San Diego is addressing the plight of homelessness by feeding meals now, with hopes to provide more support and services to lift people out of poverty and off the streets.
By providing dinners every Tuesday night, the staff and volunteers with We See You have been able to build strong relationships with these community members, and learn about their lives. “They become your friends after sharing dinner every week,” says Laura.
Laura says that meeting these community members and sharing life stories with them over dinner has shattered all the things she thought she knew about homelessness prior to this experience. She learned that people who have wound up on the streets often have roots of pain in their life. Addiction, abuse, brokenness in families, rejection and abandonment are just a few of the ways in which pain can make them feel hopeless.
“Knowing the root is pain, I think we can all identify with that,” says Laura. “I’ve learned so much about loving people. It’s about relationships and understanding people's stories.”
Laura credits her faith as the reason she felt this calling to support the unhoused in this way. Her faith was an integral part of the puzzle because it helped her see things from a new point of view. “It was always on my heart that my family and I would serve the homeless community,” says Laura.
The meaning of the name “We See You” has developed over the years. The name not only represents the fact the nonprofit aims to acknowledge the marginalized group. But the nonprofit aims to see these individuals as people and as friends; by learning their names, sharing stories, life experiences, and meals together.
Over the three and a half years of operation, We See You has been a place of refuge for many of these unhoused individuals. Laura and the staff and volunteers have stood by the community’s side as many of them have experienced great highs and devastating lows. They have visited them in the hospital, in prison, helped individuals get into rehabilitation programs, start businesses and much more.
“We’re with people in the dark times and in the joyful times too,” Laura says. “It has been life changing for me in every way.”
The nonprofit has started a few new smaller initiatives in addition to Tuesday dinners. They began Recycle for Rehab, where they collect plastic and aluminum to cash in, and use the money to sponsor a community member to go to rehab. In addition to food, they have begun a clothing aspect of their outreach, collecting donations like jackets and blankets. They also have been collecting toiletries to make personalized toiletry kits for these individuals.
We See You has high hopes for their scope of impact in the next few years. They are working towards having an established building space of their own where they can offer services to these community members that transcend weekly meals, including services like counseling or pre-rehabilitation steps.
“We want to be the hand they can hold when they’re ready to get off the street,” says Laura.
For more information on We See You San Diego, visit their Facebook page or check them out on Instagram @WeSeeYouSanDiego.