FREMONT -- Cameo Watts learned about Tri-City Volunteers the hard way, leaning on the Fremont nonprofit organization a decade ago when she and her family needed a place to live.
But years after the charity's defunct program helped her with the cost of getting into a residence, she has returned. Now a committed volunteer, she tries to make the path out of poverty easier for others.
Watts, a single mother of four children, ages 7 to 17, first came back to Tri-City Volunteers this year to perform service hours to pay off a traffic citation. About eight months later, long after she fulfilled her required service hours, she won't leave.
The 34-year-old Fremont resident said she continues to donate time because the nonprofit agency -- which for 40 years has fought to reduce hunger in southern Alameda County -- is a supportive environment where she learned, firsthand, the importance of giving.
"I got to know what they're all about -- helping people," she said.
Watts said she is no longer in need and is reaching her goals; she earned an associate degree from Chabot College in Hayward and now attends San Francisco State. When she is not taking care of her kids or studying, she works at the nonprofit's thrift shop.
"We work as a team to go the extra mile," Watts said. "We do whatever we have to do to help people."
Tri-City Volunteers utilizes about 1,500 volunteers like Watts to provide a range of services, including job-skills training, said Melissa Ponchard, the nonprofit's executive director.
As one of the Alameda County Food Bank's 275 designated pantries, its main objective is to provide food to about 4,000 families. During the holidays, it aids as many as 6,000 families. This year, the nonprofit distributed 3.6 million pounds of food, with a retail value of $6 million, Ponchard said.
Families in Fremont, Newark and Union City whose household earnings fall below 50 percent of Alameda County's median income are eligible for the programs.
On Tuesday, a line of cars snaked out of the Centerville district charity's parking lot, causing a mini-traffic jam as dozens of people continually dropped off donations and clients stopped by to get food. Ponchard said that, though reports say the economy is improving, the charity has experienced an increasing number of visitors. "We serve 250 new families a month and we've had a 40 percent increase in seniors in the past 18 months," she said.
How does a small nonprofit with just a $629,000 annual operating budget meet that demand?
Enter George Naicker, a retired Union City resident who volunteers five days a week as the Tri-City Volunteers warehouse manager. Using his decades of experience as a shipping-and-receiving manager, he supervises an ever-changing team of volunteers and organizes mountains of food to be delivered each morning. Naicker, married with two grandchildren, manages with a mixture of grandfatherly patience and a no-nonsense approach. He runs a tight ship while motivating warehouse volunteers, who number as many as 40 per day. Together, they convert countless piles of canned goods and boxed fresh fruits and vegetables into food bags for those in need.
"Our warehouse would not exist without George," Ponchard said.
Naicker said he supports the charity's mission because he remembers his poverty-stricken childhood growing up on a farm in Fiji. He said it makes him happy to mentor the volunteers, many of whom are teenagers in need of better job skills.
"In the long term, maybe they will become managers, too," Naicker said.
Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011. Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.
The Share the Spirit campaign, sponsored by this newspaper, benefits nonprofit agencies in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. To help, clip the coupon accompanying this story or go to https://volunteer.truist.com/vccc/donate. Readers with questions and corporations interested in making large contributions may contact the Volunteer Center of the East Bay, which administers the fund, at 925-472-5760. To make a donation to Tri-City Volunteers, call 510-793-4583 or go to www.tri-cityvolunteers.org.