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Interfaith's retiring sandwich colonel is driven by faith

By PAM KRAGEN | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: December 28, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — This Sunday will be like any other over the past 12 years for Michael Fontes.

In the afternoon, the 71-year-old Army veteran will lead fellow volunteers at Interfaith Community Services in Escondido in making 150 sack lunches for the homeless. Then he'll return the next morning at 4:30 a.m. to prepare and serve breakfast for up to 200 homeless and recovering men and women.

But this Sunday will be unique from all those that came before because it will be his last. After 624 Sundays, 12,000 loaves of bread and nearly 94,000 sandwiches, Fontes is moving on.

He's excited to explore new ways to volunteer his time, but the helpers and staff he's leaving behind say Fontes is irreplaceable. "The Colonel," as he's known in the kitchen, has not only organized the lunch-baggers brigade over the past dozen years. He and his wife, Jane, have also self-funded almost all of the meat, cheese and condiments in the sandwiches.

Most of the volunteers assembling sandwiches with Fontes this past Sunday were recruited from his church, St. Timothy's Catholic parish in Escondido, including Kathy McCormick and her husband, Michael. Kathy described Fontes as dependable, conscientious and an upbeat, talkative man who gives everyone a hug of thanks when they leave.

"He's the backbone of the operation here on Sundays," she said.

Volunteer Barbara Arnold, a St. Timothy's parishioner for 18 years, said she fears that when Fontes goes, the meat sandwiches will go, too, because nobody has the same drive to fund it and keep the bagging program going.

"He would give the shirt off his back to anyone," Arnold said. "He and Jane carry the ministry more than anyone else here."

Fontes is a member of the Brothers and Sisters of Penance of St. Francis, a lay organization of the Catholic Church whose members volunteer their time ministering to and caring for the needs of the sick and impoverished. Over the years, he has volunteered as a hospital and prison chaplain, built homes in Mexico with Habitat for Humanity and Project Mercy and taught religious education.

He was drawn to Interfaith in the early 2000s because much of the clientele it served at the time was homeless veterans. As a retired Army lieutenant colonel, he felt a strong desire to serve this population. When he noticed one day the soggy peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches the veterans were being served in sack lunches, he came up with the idea for meat sandwiches.

"I thought, these people deserve better than this and I can do something about it," he said. "I'm not a wealthy man, but it's like how I give to my church. It's a kind of tithe. I can't afford to pay for all of their lunches, but at least I've helped them with one good meal."

Along with the sandwich program, Fontes has also been a long-serving cook for the Monday morning breakfast shift. Over the years, he jokes that he's gone from a novice in the kitchen to an "Iron Chef" competitor, because he can whip up almost anything for a crowd with whatever protein the kitchen provides to him each week.

If it's chicken, maybe it will be fajitas. If it's turkey, it could be turkey chow mein. And if it's ground beef, it's likely to be his special chili con carne recipe. His specialty is scrambled eggs that he prepares with his own mirepoix, a flavor base of cooked-down vegetables that he learned watching Emeril Lagasse's cooking show on the Food Network.

Admittedly headstrong, Fontes said it took him a while to convince the on-staff cooks to trust him enough to plan and prepare the dishes for the Monday morning breakfast alone. "Now they just ask me 'what can we do for you?"

"Michael is one of the best volunteers we have ever had and now he's leaving," said Bill Lewis, a head cook at Interfaith's Betty and Melvin Cohn Center on Washington Avenue. "When I come in in the mornings, it's like I'm following up on a professional chef. The place is always organized and spotlessly clean. It's great working with him."

Fontes was born in Hawaii to a Japanese mother and Hawaiian father. From kindergarten, he attended Catholic schools, where he developed a deep faith and appreciation for community service. In 1970 he was at Columbia University studying Japanese and politics — with the idea of one day becoming a Hawaiian state senator — when his draft number was called. He served 10 years in Army special forces and another 14 years in the Army Reserves before transitioning into a career in sales.

He met Jane in Hawaii, where she was a teller at his bank. He wooed her with hand-written notes on his deposit slips. They've been married 41 years and have four children, ages 28 to 40.  She said that no matter how busy he was with work over the years, he always found time to attend church, minister to the poor and inspire their children to serve others.

"He's a very spiritual guy," Jane said. "He likes to share his faith with other people and he feels the need to help people. It's part of his Christian faith."

She  said that her husband has a restless nature and he rarely sits still for long. Working in the kitchen at Interfaith has been the longest volunteer job he has ever done, but he's ready for a new challenge.

In recent years, Fontes has been working as an emergency medical technician. After leaving Interfaith next week, he plans to enroll in Palomar College's Paramedic Academy. Since he'll be 73 when he graduates from the program, he realizes he will likely be too old to get hired. But he could use his state certification to move into the field for which he feels a particular vocation, hospice care.

Fontes said that in his years of riding in the back of ambulances, he has often given comfort to the sick by offering to pray for or with the patients, regardless of their faith. He hopes one day he can share the same with people on hospice.

"My goal would be to try to connect people with their spiritual core. Maybe it's something they have lost touch with over the years, but it's in there somewhere," he said. "It doesn't matter if they're Buddhist or Jewish or Muslim or Christian. I just want to help them reconnect with their side."

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