In the kitchen of the Interfaith Community Shelter at Pete’s Place, John Stotler is the master of multitasking.
While sautéing a pan of mushrooms, he divvies up tasks among volunteers: Cut the bread, grab beans from the pantry and mini corn from the fridge, prep dessert and chop bell peppers.
Meanwhile, Joseph “Jojo” Gutierrez tidies backpacks, duffel bags and purses in the shelter’s luggage room. As soon as guests arrive at 6 p.m., he greets them with smiles, hugs and fist bumps, taking their personal items and storing them alphabetically. “Hey, Jo,” one guest says.
“Wussup, bro?” Gutierrez answers, giving the man a high five, taking his bag without asking for a name.
He knows right where to put it: “Most of ’em are regulars. I know the bag. I know the person. I know how many bags they have, more or less.”
Stotler and Gutierrez are among seven staff members at the Interfaith Community Shelter who were once in the position of those they serve. They, too, have experienced homelessness — eating the shelter’s meals, handing over their luggage before an overnight stay.
Given the opportunity to be on staff and give back to the community they were previously part of, they say, is a blessing and reminder that maybe a bit of good can come out of tragedy. “If I can relate to someone and help them out, if I can put a smile on somebody’s face, then it’s all worth it,” Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez, 36, said before arriving at the shelter about four years ago, he struggled with alcoholism and had to leave his two children with a friend.
He’s come a long way since then, he said, noting he now has an apartment and got custody of his 12-year-old son last summer. He is working to get custody of his 15-year-old daughter.
“Everything I was working hard for, it all came back. I’m still mind-blown over the whole thing,” he said.
In his role — he works a split shift, between day manager and storing luggage at night — “I’m just trying to make my kids proud,” he said, his son sitting next to him. Gutierrez said his son comes with him to the shelter during night shifts, after they’ve done homework together, about two or three times a week. “It’s cool because he can see what’s going on here. He hears their stories,” Gutierrez said, noting this could help his son stay away from drugs and alcohol.
Stotler, 66, said he fell into homelessness several years after his wife, Meg LeVan, died in 2012 of breast cancer. Financially unstable, Stotler said, one thing led to the next — “too much got to be too much” — and after working odd jobs in Ohio, where he’s from, he returned to Santa Fe unemployed and without a home.
“Thank God the shelter was here,” said Stotler, who had worked in restaurants for 30 years. He said he never expected to be homeless and called the experience “a rude awakening” that temporarily stripped him of his self-esteem.
Upon arriving at the shelter in January 2018, Richard Sisneros — fellow kitchen manager, who also became homeless after the death of his wife — asked Stotler to help clean dishes. The shelter paid Stotler for the work, and once he reached the $600 maximum of contracted labor from the Internal Revenue Service, he was hired on full time. “It’s given me back some of my self-confidence. I feel better about myself. I have an assured job,” Stotler said.
Every former guest turned staff member — Gutierrez, Stotler, Sisneros, Valerie “Val” Ortiz, Ben Medina, Roque Lucero, Andrea Quintana — got their start at the shelter after falling on “hard times,” said the shelter’s executive director, Joe Jordan-Berenis. Each of them, however, chose not to be defeated but to take initiative as volunteers, Jordan-Berenis said.
On a recent Thursday night, Stotler — who walks with a limp because of a stroke he had in May — shuffled around the kitchen in a bright orange shirt that read STAFF on the back.
Just before the doors opened to guests, he stationed colleagues and volunteers at the serving line and put the finishing touches on two trays of chicken cutlets smothered in sautéed mushrooms and tomatoes. These were the backup meals, for when chicken enchiladas run out, he said. Although his shift is from 4 to 9 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, his job is “to make sure there’s enough food till 11 [p.m.].”
Stotler doesn’t do much cooking: “I just manage a bunch of misfitting people into something that resembles organized chaos,” he said with a laugh. Still, most guests have no idea how much work goes into each meal.
“They think poof, all that food appears,” he said. “I got 300 plates I gotta get ready. That in itself is a big responsibility.”
Stotler said he is the most fulfilled he’s ever been.
His previous jobs were “leisure dining. Now it’s dining by choice of necessity,” he said. “I like to think [I’m helping out]. There’s a lot of desperate people here.”
“Everyone’s help [at the shelter] is critical to people’s survival, and I mean survival,” he added.
Gutierrez agreed that the real purpose is to make a difference in people’s lives. “I’m trying to be a positive outlook for them. I [got sober and got a job] and they can do it, too,” he said. “There were some really bad days for me, but I just kept going. I want them to do it, too,” he said.