Photo: Abbey Oldham, San Antonio Express-News
Children streamed out of the van, talking and laughing as they went to get their lunch.
Regardless of their race, gender, native language, country of origin or religion, all of them came together at St. Francis Episcopal Church on Bluemel Road to enjoy a free meal during the summer when most schools are closed.
The church, in partnership with the San Antonio Food Bank and Eagles Flight Corp., is offering lunch on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays during the rest of June and part of July for children 18 and under.
The program is a continuation of the free and reduced-priced school lunches for low-income students during the regular school year, said Pam Espurvoa-Allen, who started the program and is a co-founder of Eagles Flight. The children who participate in the program, whether they're the children of refugee families or Americans, all qualified for the school lunch programs.
The children of refugee families are particularly at risk since their parents do not speak English, and they are trying to assimilate into American culture, she said.
Some of the children come from far-off places including Liberia, Somalia, Iraq, Burma and Thailand, said Michelle Autry, parish administrator at St. Francis.
Although the program is aimed at children, adults are welcome. “We don't turn anybody away,” she said.
The lunches, from 10:30 a.m. to noon, are staffed by eight volunteers: six from the church and two from Eagles Flight, a recently formed advocacy group that seeks to “ensure each child with a disability receives an appropriate education,” according to its Facebook page.
There are enough lunches for up to 125 children, Espurvoa-Allen said. For the first week of the program, they had as many as 75 people per meal.
One difficulty the organizers have encountered is getting the word out, she said. They could not advertise in English because most of the parents will not understand it; they could not advertise in the parents' native language because many of them are illiterate. Often, the children act as translators for the parents.
“I am learning about so many different cultures that I never would have learned about if I wasn't in this position,” Autry said.
As for the children, they said they enjoyed the lunch.
Nga Meh, who was born in Thailand and moved to the U.S. in 2009, said she liked playing with the other children after eating.
Cieloa Almazan, 9, said she liked the food. Friday's lunch was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a slice of cheese, a pickle, an orange and milk.
The children are not the only ones who benefit from the meals.
“Being here and seeing the faces of these children, seeing them smile, it's been such a joy,” she said.