At 11 a.m. on a Sunday at First Christian Church, you’ll find your average church service. People will likely be shuffling into pews, greeting friends and acquaintances -- but downstairs is where you’ll find the Burrito Brigade.
In the church basement’s kitchen each week, around 15 volunteers cut up onions, carrots, peppers, potatoes and more, cook them in massive pots and roll up to 500 burritos. Then, the volunteers go by car, bike and foot to distribute them to people all over Eugene, with most members focusing their efforts downtown.
Eugene Dunkle was on the receiving end of these burritos in 2014, the year the Burrito Brigade started. Homeless and living on the street at the time, he appreciated the weekly donation. Dunkle eventually got an apartment in April of that year and started helping out with the Burrito Brigade in an effort to give back. Now, he’s there each weekend to chop, roll and distribute these burritos, and to help coordinate volunteers.
Back when the organization first began, they were based out of the Lorax, a student co-operative house off-campus with a sustainable focus. The house had a good, sizable kitchen, but it was difficult to work around students making their morning breakfast and coffee. Four years ago, the Brigade was able to start using the church’s downstairs space and has been there ever since.
Jennifer Denson, now the Burrito Brigade’s Executive Director, stumbled upon the organization on a Facebook post six months after its inception. “I was instantly hooked,” she said. “I had always wanted to help others but I had no idea how to go about it.”
Denson is responsible for coordinating everything from emails, paperwork and acquiring ingredients. Her brother, Steven, helps her with the Brigade each week. They haven’t skipped a weekend since they started, and over six years, the nonprofit has given out over 184,000 meals.
The best part, Denson says, is distributing the burritos at the end. She loves the simplicity of going up to someone and asking, “Do you want a free burrito?” to hear the surprise and excitement in their voice. “There’s no other questions to be asked, no catch,” she said. “It’s a really wonderful, positive thing that makes people’s days.”
Denson, who works as an educational aide at the 4J school district, started working part-time this year to be able to focus more of her energy on the Burrito Brigade. She hopes to be able to make her role into a full-time job in the near future.
The Brigade gets their ingredients from a mix of donations and purchasing. In the summer, they get some in-season vegetables donated to them from local markets. All of the burritos are 100% vegan, typically made with rice, beans and vegetables.
Volunteers range in age and background. There’s no age restriction, so anyone can help out. On any given Sunday, you can see kids and their parents, students in Greek life trying to earn extra volunteer hours, or community members who just want to give back.
One group that partners regularly with the Burrito Brigade is the Defiant Divas, a women’s group that promotes body positivity, self-love and expression, all while volunteering together at local charities. One of the Divas, Amy Marie, brings her son to the Brigade to help out. She says her involvement with the Divas has changed her life through helping others and has made her more confident.
The Brigade doesn’t just give burritos to those who are homeless. They distribute to anybody, regardless of appearance or financial background. It originally started in Eugene, but eventually moved up to Portland as well.
For more information on the Eugene Burrito Brigade, you can visit their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/EugeneBurritoBrigade/.