Angel under the El

HOPE Week supports Jorge Munoz, an Angel in Queens
06/28/2012 10:21 AM ET
By Jerome Preisler

The Yankees proudly donated $10,000 to Jorge Munoz to support his feeding of those in need.(Joe Auriemma)

At Yankee Stadium, where the press conference room had become an ad hoc buffet space for the HOPE Week alumni dinner, Jorge Munoz settled over his food looking happy and a little tired. His days are based on schedule and routine, and although he’d allowed for both on this exceptional day, he still had his work ahead of him.

It was just past six o’clock in the evening. In less than an hour, with tens of thousands watching from the grandstands, Munoz would be throwing the ceremonial first pitch before that night’s game between the Yankees and Cleveland Indians. But he would not stay to watch the game with his small group of invited friends. Instead he’d be driven from the ballpark to Woodhaven, Queens, where he shares a modest two-story rental apartment with his mother Blanca, his sister Luz, and nine-year-old nephew Justin. As he does every night, he would get ready to feed the hungry with meals cooked in their tiny kitchen.

The food had been prepared earlier. With the help of one volunteer, Munoz always does the job fast. There’s only room for two people in that kitchen, and on any given night they make enough food for over a hundred mouths, so Munoz knows they’d better have their system down pat. Today was a little different, with his unexpected guests, those famous baseball players, helping, sort of, though it wasn’t easy. Their big bodies crammed into the kitchen, the news reporters and cameramen behind them, it was quite a commotion.

Still, the distractions aside, Munoz had been thrilled. It was nice to be honored, but far more important, the Yankees had brought food and supplies, and made a donation that would let him buy a lot more.

For Munoz the cooking ordinarily starts in the early afternoon, and is packed up by five o’clock and then loaded onto his white pickup. By seven o’clock they’re done, and he and his family go to church. The service ends at nine, nine-fifteen, and about half an hour later Munoz drives his truck out to the corner of 75th and Roosevelt in Jackson Heights, parks there under the elevated train tracks between the rows of slightly rundown storefronts and diners and begins giving out food. A hundred-twenty, a hundred-thirty, sometimes as many as a hundred-sixty meals.

Munoz knew he would have some extra help with him tonight. He had been chosen as an honoree for the Yankees’ annual HOPE Week initiative, a weeklong celebration recognizing people who succeed at nobility through example and charitable action, often surmounting great personal challenges to help and inspire other people. The vision of the team’s publicity chief Jason Zillo, it is a perfect fusing of heartfelt corporate philanthropy and community relations, and every year the whole organization gets involved. Executives, players, coaches, everyone.

So Munoz would have some company later. The team’s general manager, Brian Cashman, was going to drive out with him in the truck, accompany him to the spot where he always parked under the racketing el tracks. There would be members of the Yankees’ front office too, and a small group of previous HOPE Week honorees. When the hungry lined up on the pavement -- Hispanics, Asians, Africans, people of all ethnic groups and nationalities -- Munoz would distribute the food, knives, and forks with a hand from his special sidekicks.

Munoz changed the menu every day. Tonight’s dinner was lentils with Columbian sausage and white rice. Tomorrow he was planning rice, beans and oven chicken, and the following night pasta, rice and chicken; Munoz, Luz and their assistant would have cook maybe sixty pounds of chicken. The next day, Friday, he’d serve pasta, ham, sausage and rice, something a little different for the weekend.

In the bowels of Yankee Stadium now, Munoz took a bite of the food he’d carried over from the buffet table, sipped his beverage, and exchanged a few words in his native Spanish with his mother and sister. Halfway around the table to his left, Justin was chumming up to one of the HOPE alumni and his family. A gregarious, dark-haired boy wearing large black glasses, he’d gotten a lot of attention today and seemed to be having the time of his life.

That morning he’d gotten the chance to wear a huge, diamond-encrusted Yankees World Series championship ring. Jennifer Steinbrenner Swindal, one of the team’s owners had slipped it off her finger to let him try it on, and then taken pictures with an iPhone. This was in the narrow driveway outside Munoz’s home, away from the cameras, unnoticed by most of the reporters jamming it top to bottom.

Jorge had returned from his supply run to Costco and BJ’s Wholesale Club to see the media crews, and then the group of star Yankee players -- Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, Hiroki Kuroda and Boone Logan -- showing up with twenty-pound bags of rice and large containers of cooking oil. The players had gone up the driveway to the side door, climbed short flight of stairs leading into Munoz’s kitchen, and gotten to work helping with that day’s preparations. Cutting, peeling, stirring. Cano had done a skillful job chopping the ham into cubes, and would later explain that he’d done it before in the Dominican.

Swindal had arrived with Jason Zillo and his PR team. A slender, elegant woman with blonde hair and stunning blue eyes, she had stood bumping arms with reporters in a small room outside the kitchen, awaiting her turn to help once the cameras left the scene. This was what HOPE Week was all about for her -- giving back. As George Steinbrenner’s daughter and the recipient of many of life’s blessings, she believed giving back was the single most important thing you could do, and in her view you could never do enough.

Yankees General Partner/Vice Chairperson Jennifer Steinbrenner Swindal has been an integral part of HOPE Week 2012. (Joe Auriemma)

The day before, at the week’s first event, she’d gone out to stables in the Bronx where children with disabilities got to interact with horses in a therapeutic riding program. Because she was familiar with horses, she’d had charge of three kids for a while. When she went home that evening she’d called her children in tears, told them it was the most beautiful experience.

Swindal enjoyed being hands on and especially loved being involved with kids, so it was nothing too unusual for her to let Justin weigh her World Series ring on his finger. A few minutes later, with Munoz’s neighbors gathering at the foot of the driveway as word of the Yankee visit leaked out, she would walk up to a man holding a pink-swaddled baby girl and coo over her. When Zillo signaled that she was needed for the presentation of a ten-thousand dollar donation to Munoz, the man pulled his infant daughter up close to his chest, held her more closely in his arms.

“Maybe you’ll be powerful woman like her someday,” he’d said quietly.

And so, hours afterward at Yankee Stadium at the alumni dinner, Swindal was again pausing with Justin as she circulated from table to table, greeting the Yankees’ invited guests, the recipients of past HOPE Week honors. Across from them, Munoz had looked proud, but his mind was already turning toward the busy night ahead in Queens.

Built like a racehorse jockey, in his forties, Munoz is a 5’2” bundle of drive and determination. In 2004, he’d been driving a school bus in Jackson Heights and noticed some local restaurant employees dumping leftover food into the trash. This was before school let out, a Friday, and he’d pulled over and walked over to the guys.

“What are you doing?” he’d said. “What are you doing with that food?”

“We have to throw it in the garbage,” they’d told him. “By law, you have to throw it in the garbage every Friday.”

Munoz hadn’t thought more than a few seconds before asking his next question. Years earlier, after his father was killed in an accident in Columbia, he and his sister had followed his mother to America. Obtaining her legal residency, Blanca had worked as a housekeeper and spent every last cent she earned supporting her two children. Jorge could not see good food being wasted.

“Listen,” he’d told the restaurant workers, “why don’t you just hand it to me and I’ll find somebody who needs it.”

And he’d been true to his assertion. In the beginning, he’d brown-bagged eight sandwiches and given them out to deprived families. A month later, riding the school bus again, he’d looked out the window and seen a group of Hispanic men on the street under the subway rails. Rolling down his window in curiosity, he’d asked what they were doing there.

They said, “We are day laborers. We work day by day.”

“What about food?” Munoz said.

“If we have jobs, we’ll eat today,” they’d replied. “If we don’t, we don’t know.”

Munoz had regarded them, remembering how tough it had been for his family when they first came to this country. Remembering that his mother had taught him to share whatever extra he had with others in need.

“Tomorrow I’m gonna bring some food to you,” he’d said. “I got food in my house, and I’m gonna bring some to you. Do you trust me?”

The workers had said yes, they trusted him, and returned to the corner the next day. And Munoz had brought them food.

Soon the eight sandwiches became sixteen, then twenty-four meals, then thirty-five … and gradually over a hundred meals a night. Munoz had supplemented the restaurant leftovers with food he bought with his own money, spending half his paycheck on it.

Eight years later, recently laid off, Munoz continued to fund his food with his unemployment checks. His sister, who worked for the Social Security Administration, was contributing whatever portion of her salary did not go toward keeping a roof over the family’s heads. In his late forties, Munoz had plans to take some courses at a local community college when he could squeeze them in, hoping to someday get a degree in business administration.

But college was still months away, assuming he could secure the financial aid that would allow him to attend. Right now, tonight, Munoz was grateful for what the Yankees had done to acknowledge him, and maybe even a little overwhelmed.

He was also getting restless.

In a short while dinner would be over, and he would throw that first pitch. He would embrace the moment, put everything he had into hurling the ball over home plate, his face showing the same the passion, resolve and energy he always channeled into his life’s mission.

And then it would be back out to Queens, his truck, and his nightly delivery of home cooked food.

Soon Jorge Munoz, angel under the el, would get to work where he was needed.

With thanks to Blanca Munoz and Jennifer Steinbrenner Swindal

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