Who doesn’t like a stack of pancakes? Pour a little syrup, add a bit of butter and sprinkle some berries or sliced bananas on top and you’ve definitely got a delicious treat, especially on a weekend morning.
Between about 9:30 a.m. and noon each Saturday, a pair of hotcakes, some cooked just enough, a few that are golden brown and some that are well done and even a little crispy, are all served at the corner of 13th and K Streets in downtown San Diego for free.
A line has already formed, often about 50 people long, when University of San Diego fourth-year accounting and theology double major Will Tate and his friends park a silver truck and unload tables, burners, griddles and a propane tank that fuels their endeavor.
At the same time, in a black Jeep with a sticker on the left side of the back window stating, “I Am Second,” Mary Grabowski, a 2016 USD alumna, former Torero softball catcher and immediate past president of the university’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, arrives. She and 15-20 USD students unload a hefty bag of pancake mix, several gallons of water, a few jugs of syrup, fresh coffee and large packs of individual water bottles. Everything is assembled and soon the batter will be whipped up and turned into pancake goodness.
“It is the perfect comfort food, especially for the kind of atmosphere we’re trying to create,” Grabowski says.
The energy during these few hours when Pancake Peeps, the name for this USD group, arrives is electric. What Tate, Grabowski, and others among an ever-rotating group of students, friends and university staff provide is much more than pancakes.
“In the Bible, Jesus said, ‘when I was hungry, you fed me,’ and, Grabowski continues, he said, ‘go out my disciples, love your neighbor as yourself.’ At the very core, we are told to love people.”
Spending quality time with Robert, Randy, Agnes and a host of other men and women who struggle to survive, some who are homeless, live on the streets, are retired veterans or who do live in government-assisted housing but have personal and mental health issues, is oftentimes the best medicine.
“Pancake Peeps is a place where we’re constantly bringing communities together that normally wouldn’t be together and we’re bringing awareness to people at the University of San Diego about the underserved population in the city,” Tate said.
It’s changemaking at its most common, basic level and yet for many, it’s a lesson that perpetually needs to be taught. It’s a bubble world in major need of bursting.
“In a society or country that teaches or perpetuates individualism, the question a Changemaker has for them is why care about other people? It’s kind of hard sometimes to get people to care about people, or certain issues,” Tate said.
Through Pancake Peeps, love is always in abundance. Time doesn’t stop during these precious few hours, but it sure slows enough that student volunteers and the downtown members experience a mutual sense of belonging, share laughs, music and develop a palpable connectedness.
“There’s a privilege bubble I want to pop,” Tate stated. “That’s how you begin to care about people; when you just understand that your experience and perspective is not the only experience and perspective. This is how people can really understand people.”
Grabowski agrees. “What I really like is when we bring new students here, and they find out that they have something in common with someone there. One student found out that a person was from the same hometown as her mom and they chatted for 20 minutes. More than bubbles being popped, what I want people to realize is that you are connected to this person. It might be someone who has clear mental health issues from being on the streets, but maybe they have the same passions as you, maybe they’re from the same hometown as you, and the same insecurities as you. We may be in a bubble, or hundreds of bubbles at USD, but we’re all connected, you know?”
While some students prepare, and have fun dishing up pancakes, others strum their guitars, sing hymns or Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” or Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me.” On this particular day, they’re accompanied by James, a pancake eater who joins in the musical fun by playing some stellar harmonica.
There are a few children and young adults who flock to Pancake Peeps’ designated spot as a safe space. There’s a young boy, affectionately nicknamed Pikachu, who always brightens the scene with his enthusiasm. A young man, Aaron, chats with everyone and that love is reciprocated when the student volunteers bought him a red velvet cake and he got to blow out candles while the group sang “Happy Birthday” to the newest 19-year-old.
Speaking of birthdays, one USD student volunteer, senior English major Lauren Franklin, is spending the early part of her 22nd birthday with Pancake Peeps and said it was the best gift she could receive.
“This is really how I want to be spending my time,” she said. “On my birthday, I’m commemorating and being grateful for the day I was born and I want to honor that with very personalized service with the people here.”
Pancake Peeps, from the moment they huddle outside a Starbucks near USD’s campus to pray for a successful Saturday experience to the post-pancake serving reflection as students share what they’ve learned, who they met and ask for the group to pray for them, always make a strong connection.
“I think the reason why I do what I do is a scripture that I really want to follow, that I want to emulate: ‘They will know us by the way that we love one another,’” said Tate. “I really want to love those who aren’t really being loved. And whether that’s because of gender identity, sexual orientation, whether that be their faith, no matter what it is, every single time we go, we make sure we say everybody’s welcome here.” — Ryan T. Blystone