A Story of Compassion with Andrea Fontana and compassion motivation

What do you talk about around the dinner table?

For Andrea Fontana and her husband, Henri, their dinner talk is rooted directly in the Gospel. They talk about compassion with their kids, discussing why they volunteer or what they’ve learned. Andrea chooses to encourage her family to volunteer regularly and earnestly, taking her kids with her whenever possible.

Before the pandemic started she volunteered at a women’s shelter called Village House. She worked as a floor monitor or picked up other odd jobs during her volunteer hours.

Now, Andrea is a consistent volunteer at Second Harvest Food Bank and Kind Hearts, assisting with food and meal distribution. With Second Harvest, she helps with the grocery distribution at the Campbell Methodist Church site, only ten minutes away from our church. When she is there, she helps them set up and puts grocery boxes in the cars that drive through. Sometimes she goes to Miranda Villa Senior Apartments, where she helps deliver groceries directly to each resident’s doorstep. If she isn’t at Campbell Methodist or Miranda, she is giving bags of food to people that come in lines at other food drives.

Finally, within Grace, Andrea is a constant presence, opening her home for hygiene kit assemblies with GraceTeens and running compassion drives on Sundays. She’s helped during our Help One Child Giving Tree at Christmas, PATH snack drives for hygiene kits, and KAFPA kids’ donations table. Spread amongst so many causes, I wanted to find out what motivates her to volunteer so much, so willingly, so often.

We began our conversation, lattes in hand, sitting outside a cafe in Campbell. I ask her why she volunteers.

“That’s a tough question. I don’t really know. I wish I could say to you that it is because of this, or that, but I just think it is the least I can do as a human and as a Christian, for another human, for our local and global community. It just makes me uncomfortable seeing so many people in need here and in the entire world, and just be sorry for them. We were made to share this world, and to serve others in any way we can. Most of the time not perfectly—far from that — but the smallest things we can do, maybe it is a start in others’ life, but still something in their lives.

I can’t say I know what is to be on the other side, in their shoes, because I don’t, but I just feel that there are humans out there that have the same needs as us. We are all God’s children, equals, so we should all care for each other laying on the gifts God gave us. This is the only— I repeat— the only way to build a community. So let’s just say: I don’t know why I do it, I am just pushed to do it. I am uncomfortable not doing it.”

Andrea volunteers practically every week. From Second Harvest, she shares her observations about the cost of living in Silicon Valley. “Not everyone that is served by these food programs are necessarily unemployed or houseless, but the cost of life here is so unaffordable that they deeply need complementary help to survive… I think with this kind of help they can better organize their lives.

Living here we tend to think we are all at the same level, everyone has all their needs fulfilled, and it’s not true, it’s definitely not true. There are people living here, most of them have jobs and things like that, but they can’t afford to have dignity.” Meeting people in their hunger and disorganization is a visible, physical need that is answered with a healthy box of groceries; healthy foods that Andrea appreciates as it is often the cheap, unhealthy food that is the only option to low-income families.

As a dedicated and determined volunteer, she reveals the grace with which she extends other volunteers besides herself, even when they aren’t ready to go forth.

“I think everyone has their own time. Sometimes in life you are in somethings that you are willing to help others, and sometimes people just have other things in life or other personal problems to solve. So I would say that. People sometimes are not uncomfortable but not in the right time to help others, but with time if you open your hearts, the face can.”

Andrea opens up about how weaving compassion into the fabric of her life leads to surprising, often humbling encounters. At Village House, she met a woman who asked of her a strange request. “Once I was doing the floor monitor shift, and one of the women asked me to watch over her belongings while she went downstairs to have her dinner. I remembered thinking: What possibly can happen with her belongings here? There are only 20 women here that already know each other. It was then when I realized how little I knew about their world…how small my vision was about the ones we serve.

At that moment I could think about bad situations she went through in her life, how many times she faced a situation where everything she had was taken from her right in front of her eyes, literally and figuratively speaking. It makes me really understand a little of their daily struggles. This simple situation made my mind open to a new entire world that I innocently—or arrogantly—thought I already knew, or at least understood.”

When the pandemic hit, Village House paused all operations, but Andrea is hopeful that it will get up and running again one day. Village House was an inter-faith women’s shelter with no fixed location; rather, they settle within various churches that have a structure to offer. As long as the church place has a kitchen and safe place for nights, Village House provided a set of rules and volunteers—two monitors, a cook, cleaner, security, floor monitor— to make the shelter run every evening.

Andrea explains what she did, saying, “I helped with monitoring, sometimes with cooking and organizing the laundry. So I organized the volunteers to take their laundry in the morning, do the laundry, and get the things back at the end of the day for them. It was an amazing, amazing project.”

Interacting with women who come from radically different life backgrounds from herself or reaching out to neighbors with groceries in hand, are moments that would seem to demand a certain skill set or confidence. Andrea challenges this assumption. “To be honest, I am not a talkative person; on the contrary, I am extremely shy which makes it difficult for me to ‘interact’ with them. But it is another thing that I have realized for a while…we don’t have to have all the skills or great skills to serve, we just need to go as we are.

I am shy, but I have other things to offer, like I am punctual, good with processes, and I have experience in ‘making processes go well’, so why not go and do [what] I know how to do, or why wait for the perfect situation for my skills? I definitely would rather go imperfect and do little, than wait and do nothing. I don’t interact much with people, but someone else will do it, and I will do the other things— together we will make it happen.”

Sometimes, Andrea points out, it is challenging when it seems like that someone else isn’t there. “It is discouraging sometimes when I arrive at the place and I see few people, in a lot of cases just me and one more person, and never a known face. It feels like we are alone in that. But then we just start to see the faces of the people that are being helped, and we simply forget everything else.”

Challenges aren’t always simply relational or emotional—they’re physical too. Andrea shares about the demands of grocery lifting at Miranda Villa, a veritable workout each Thursday morning:

“Once, it was only me and another man, and we had to deliver all the boxes to all the apartments, just the two of us. I came home exhausted and even experienced some pain that day…I had to take the entire afternoon off. I think that’s the challenge, it’s physical, but there you are, it’s much bigger than that. I believe that.”

She continues, explaining the reward that is so hard to catch outside of others-oriented living. “Nothing can describe the feelings we have when we help others, because we are not actually helping others…we are helping ourselves because we are them. We are brothers and sisters. And when we are helping someone, we are actually helping yourself, your family, your loved ones… there are a lot of people needing help right now— not one year from now, not ten years from now, not “when I can help”— it’s when they need to be helped. So I think it’s the right thing to do as a Christian and as a human.”

“I am sure all of us have something to offer. It doesn’t mean we need to do all the same things. Each one of us has one gift that we can share: working, communication, organization, putting things together, listening, teaching, cleaning, praying… some gifts that we don’t even know we have. It doesn’t matter how much we do, how many hours, how much we spend…

Each water drop counts to fill a river, and there are so many rivers empty out there, right now. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be done. Come as you are if you feel called for it.”

This call is one that Andrea makes sure to tell her children. She tells me how Teo and Alice, her two kids, will often ask her if they can go to compassion events. “Even Alice, that’s the little one, she’s always excited to do something. I’m not sure if she understands well what she’s doing but she does it,” Andrea laughs.

Between volunteering and Sunday mornings, the Fontanas discuss. “I can take recent events, like during the COVID, we spent a lot [of time on] how blessed we are and how many people don’t have what we have. And that’s [why it’s] important for us to help those people— actually, not to help them—but to share the blessings we have. And we constantly discuss that.

With the hygiene kits, they understand perfectly the purpose of that…[And the kids] go with me to Kind Hearts. They’re allowed to go, they encourage families to go together there. So we discuss why we are doing that. Not just ‘let’s do it’—why we are doing that, how important is this to society and to the community. I also take the opportunity to discuss compassion is not … only big events, but if there’s a neighbor needing something, or even people from our family, not food or things like that, but a word of encouragement or things like that: this is compassion too. So I try to emphasize that to them, how it is the small things.”

Placing a box on a doorstep, doing another’s laundry, sharing a gracious word—these are the small things that build the foundation for life change, both in the servant and the served. Perhaps you are still wondering what small thing God is pulling you toward. As Andrea says, “With time, if you open your hearts, the face can” open too, opening doors to unexpected opportunities to serve and friendships.

John 15:12-15—“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”

photocredit: Remi Walle on unsplash

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