This Thanksgiving holiday Bakersfield’s Burrito Project celebrated by passing out hot breakfast burritos with hygiene products, blankets, socks, and other essential items.
The Bakersfield Burrito Project’s main hub is located in the offices of the Golden Empire Gleaners, Building C, on 30th Street off Chester Avenue in downtown Bakersfield. It’s right across from the Garces Memorial Circle underpass beneath Golden State Avenue — one of the many areas with groups of unhoused individuals.
“I started the Burrito Project back in 2009, I felt there was a need in our community. There’s a gap on Sundays, for a lot of facilities that were taking the day off, and people get hungry on Sundays. I’ve been homeless a couple of times in my life. I know what it feels like to have that food insecurity, and we like to provide people a meal that they may not be able to get on Sunday,” stated Belinda Lopez Rickett, who founded The Burrito Project 14 years ago.
The Bakersfield Burrito Project offers burritos made with beans, rice, and cheese. They also hand out dog and cat food when in stock. Additionally, Bakersfield Pizza Company and Camino Real Kitchen and Tequila donated pizza and other materials needed. Wesley United Methodist Church also helps out with Panera bread and water.
Most monetary donations are thanks to The Burrito Project’s following of over 2,800 on Facebook, and the Dutch Bros. Coffee collaboration which garnered over $16,000. The public is urged to donate using either Venmo, Cash App, PayPal, or through check or money order made out to The Bakersfield Burrito Project’s P.O. box 139. You can find the Bakersfield Burrito Project on their social media platforms Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and Facebook.
“They know they can count on us,” Rickett stated.
Rickett has been showing up for the Kern community “rain or shine” as she puts it because it’s important to her to stay dependable. The nonprofit was nominated for the 2009 Beautiful Bakersfield Award.
The inspiration for the name and idea of the nonprofit came from a post Rickett saw on Myspace. Two guys from Los Angeles famously started the first Burrito Project, using what they had to feed the hungry on Skid Row, a street known for unhoused encampments and overall poverty. Rickett reed seeing them on social media and wanting to combine her love for burritos with helping her community. Others across the globe reportedly were inspired to start their own organizations including places as far as Mexico City, Damascus, and Syria where MySpace users created a Falafel Project.
Rickett is a Bakersfield native who is an aspiring art teacher studying at California State University Bakersfield (CSUB) and is excited to announce that she’s graduating this fall semester with a Bachelor’s degree in Studio Art. Rickett has a background working with the Boys and Girls Club, Bakersfield College (BC) as a student mentor, and local art stores.
“I’m going to be a teacher,” Rickett explained. As the project started becoming a fully credited non-profit Rickett created ways for high schoolers to also get involved and earn classroom grades for volunteering. “Helping our students learn new things is part of what I like to do. Teaching them compassion and that there’s more to just handing a burrito to a homeless person, there’s getting to know why, and people understanding food insecurity.”
The Thanksgiving event attracted volunteers from CSUB’s and BC’s nursing programs and Centennial High School. Most programs that require volunteer hours rely on The Bakersfield Burrito Project to offer those opportunities for philanthropy. High schools that participate in the volunteer program are Bakersfield High School, Ridgeview High School, East High School, Centennial High School, and Mira Monte High School.
Centennial High senior Caden Wright said, “I picked The Burrito Project because I like helping out people in need and giving back to the community- this is a great way to do it.”
Another student, Gavin Smith claimed that with The Burrito Project you can interact more with the community.
“I’ve been in the same position as a lot of these people, not for long, but long enough to understand what they’ve been through. Having been through that experience and given help from the community just makes me want to continue doing [outreach],” stated Viviana Gonzalez, who participated in the first high school collaboration with the project in 2014.
Gonzalez emphasized that places like Mercy House: Brundage Lane Navigation Center and CityServe, or organizations such as the Apple Core Project were great resources for them.
On the Kern County Public Health website you can locate shelters across the region, nine are listed. Some include Alliance Against Family Violence & Sexual Assault, Alpha House, and Bethany Services (Bakersfield Homeless Shelter).
Rickett also struggles with housing insecurities. “My late husband and I were homeless, back in 2018, which was a weird thing to go through when you’re [operating a nonprofit]. We found out that there were some hurdles that people have to go through when you’re homeless.”
During this time Rickett was a full-time student working two jobs while caring for her husband who lived with a disability, her two kids who were attending school, and the family’s livestock. Rickett was previously unhoused in high school and states that she urges her kids to stay in their current family home until they can financially sustain themselves.
Rickett continued to say, “It’s hard to try and stay housed. Once you’re in that position – your home is taken away from you.”
Thanks to city vouchers Rickett’s family was able to stay in an animal-friendly motel until they could find permanent housing. She explains that you can go to the Department of Human Services and fill out an application there. Often help is given on the spot. People can also call 211 to find other resources to help with food, clothing, shelter, and utilities.
While operating the Bakersfield Burrito Project the team has lost members and family, but to honor them they continue to serve. Personally, Rickett has seen how doing community service work can drain you if there isn’t enough proper self-care. After her husband’s passing and struggles with COVID-19 Rickett decided to take time to rest.
“One would think that if you’re at this age, this position of your life, you should be stable. People have things and hurdles that come around. I worry every day are the lights going to be shut off because I have just enough money to pay the rent. I don’t have a car anymore- I had to make a choice, tuition or car payment, I chose tuition,” Rickett said. She still makes it to classes using the city bus.
Rickett shares that drug use, or dangerous methods of ‘self-medicating,’ among the unhoused is a complex issue stemming from trauma. Some of these traumas are attributed to not having their basic needs met. Mental health is a huge factor in the work Rickett does because many are grieving or struggling with mental illness.
“When you see somebody having a mental health issue don’t call the police, call Mary K Shell,” Rickett stated, expressing concern for how individuals are treated during an emergency.
Officials have added that if you or someone you know is in mental distress or feeling suicidal dial the 24/7 available, confidential, and free hotline 988. National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) in Kern County has teamed up with the Bakersfield Police Department, Kern County Sheriff, and Kern County Mental Health Department to adopt the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) strategy.
The goal of CIT is that after 40 hours of training public servants like the police will have a better understanding of how to deal with mental health crises.
Rickett suggested using Save A Life Today (SALT) services if you’re grieving a loss due to suicide.