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The story of Maxine Lewis, who strived to feed her community

Maxine Lewis in a 1980 photograph.
Maxine Lewis in a 1980 photograph.

A car accident left her unable to work at her nursing job. An attempt to help an elderly woman with housework ended with racial slurs.

These setbacks could have stopped a less resilient person, but Maxine Lewis overcame obstacles and made the community her family.

The homeless shelter on Orcutt Road in San Luis Obispo is named for her.

She worked for an assistance organization called Grass Roots in the mid-1960s, and she founded Grass Roots II in 1968.

She did not always get along with the bureaucratic system.

At one point in 1981 the San Luis Obispo City Council cut off funding, and in 1983 the agency had to close its doors.

Lewis re-opened a few months later.

Said San Luis Obispo Mayor Ron Dunin in a May 16, 1988, Telegram-Tribune article: “Very many times, she was a misunderstood person. She had a heart of gold but did not have a bureaucratic understanding. … She liked to do things without pressure from paperwork. She hated paperwork. But she was the biggest champion that the underprivileged people of this city ever had.”

In a Dec. 29, 1989, story, the Rev. Ervin Lewis, Maxine’s brother-in-law and pastor of St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church, said: “She stuck her head out for others and gave everything she had away. She always wanted to help others.”

Standing still was not in her nature.

She was born Sept. 30, 1926, in Longview, Texas, daughter of a sharecropper. She grew up seeing the poverty near Indian reservations in California and Oklahoma.

She moved to San Luis Obispo in 1959 with her family, husband Jewel, five daughters and three sons.

In a Nov. 25, 1971, story, Lewis said: “As far back as I remember, I always wanted to work with people, to help people — especially children and old people.”

Lewis wanted to help elderly stay at home for as long as possible.

“Convalescent homes and geriatrics wards are places to die, not to live,” said Lewis. “I try to help people to stay at home as long as they are able. Sometimes all they need is a daily phone call to make sure they are all right.”

Her feeling was summed up with “give them a flower while they live — not when they are dead.”

Maxine Lewis died in May 1988 at the age of 61, one month after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, having spent more than two decades directing help to the homeless and infirm.

On Nov. 19, 1980, Telegram-Tribune community editor Dorie Bentley wrote about how Maxine Lewis made the community her extended family after an ugly incident that would have stopped a lesser spirit.

At Thanksgiving, hundreds become her family

Maxine Lewis will be doing what she usually does for Thanksgiving — putting on a feast for the multitude.

“We’re just trying to bring a little sunshine into someone’s life. Or just to let them know we care,” she said.

Maxine Lewis has been showering her particular brand of sunshine on San Luis Obispo County residents since she moved from Texas with her eight children in 1959.

“I have always been a person wanting to help. My theory is helping. If I can help someone today … ”

Her work as Grass Roots director has won praise from all quarters. She could decorate a wall of her Baywood Park home with the 15 or so plaques she has received for her community service.

The Thanksgiving dinners that had their beginning in her San Luis Obispo home now feed hundreds each year.

Munching on bits of raw yam, Lewis told how it started. She’s always been used to doing a lot of meals, “but I don’t measure anything. I don’t go by recipes, but I know the ingredients.”

She talked about one of her favorites, sweet potato pie.

“I take a slice of yam to taste the sweetness. It let’s me know how much sugar to add to the pie. All fruits and vegetables have their own sugars. The key is to keep them at their most nutritious. All vegetables have enough juices to cook themselves. I use very little water in preparing vegetables. It takes longer, but tastes better.”

She became involved with Grass Roots through the 1964 War on Poverty Act. Six centers, called Grass Roots, were set up in poverty areas. In the reshuffling in years 1966-67, which saw most poverty centers replaced by manpower centers, Grass Roots survived. It started out in San Luis Obispo on $600 a month from the city coffers, and became a nonprofit organization in 1972.

“I started out as a volunteer. We held community meetings monthly. I was elected by a majority of the community to do the job. I didn’t make an application, I was elected,” she said.

She credits “the help of the good Samaritans of San Luis Obispo County” for the many accomplishments of Grass Roots.

She’s proud of her part, “I let people know what their rights are.”

Housing for the poor, better housing for lower-income people, child care centers, adult literacy classes and educational programs followed.

Under one program, low-income people could get loans to build a house. “I built this house here. My income was so low — with eight children.”

Now 54, Lewis’ oldest daughter is 38, her youngest child, 21. She’s been named Citizen of the Year by Phi Delta Kappa for her outstanding service to schools; citizen of the month by the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce for “humanistic and dynamic services to people in need.”

There is another story Lewis doesn’t tell easily. “I hate to get into this,” she said.

She had a serious accident and was disabled, “but I have always helped — been concerned about other people. It’s my nature.”

She saw an advertisement; an older woman needed someone to do house cleaning. “I knocked on the door, and an older woman answered. I told her I was disabled, but felt I could be useful, and felt I had a lot of useful years left to help someone. I told her I was not asking for money; I wanted to give my time to her…”

The tall, black woman continued, “She looked at me and said, ‘You … a nigger. Coming to my door thinking you can help me. You — get away from my door. I don’t want help from no nigger.’”

Lewis said, “… That was a hurt. But I was still determined that there were people I would be able to help.

“Then I found this organization — Grass Roots — and this was a place I could spend as much time volunteering as I wanted to. I enjoy everything Grass Roots stands for, because I too have concerns.”

The first Thanksgiving dinner, “started in my home, shortly after I came to San Luis Obispo, around 1961 or ’62. I lived on Broad Street where there were many transient-type people.

They stopped in; seniors, too. The dinner was solely prepared and donated by myself. It was open all day. About 30 to 40 people came in, another 10 to 20 meals went out. I tried to get people to a home-like setting.”

Not only did she like the crowd, she felt her children benefited from the grandfather-grandmother image of the elderly, she added.

She’s been Grass Roots director nine years, and “each year the dinner grew and grew and grew.”

Some 800 to 900 people dine every year; another 300 to 400 meals are taken to the homebound.

The dinners, which used to be held on Thanksgiving, are now held two or three days earlier to let volunteers like Lewis, “spend the day with their families.”

She has 37 turkeys and two which have been donated for the 1980 dinner, coming up Tuesday, Nov. 25. The public is invited from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. to the Grange Hall in San Luis Obispo.

She said Grass Roots is looking for more turkeys and ham to go along with the cornbread stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, peas, broccoli and string beans, cranberry sauce, tossed salad, rolls, and “a host of homemade cakes and pies” on the menu.

The day before turkey day all volunteers will meet in the basement of the Springfield Baptist Church to prepare the meal.