Find the article here as well: http://longislandreport.org/features/swami-durga-das-the-man-behind-the-river-fund/23926
For those who live on Lefferts Boulevard in Richmond Hill, seeing the streets packed with hundreds of people every Saturday morning is not an unusual sight. The line is for the on-site pantry service, The River Fund. For over 23 years, Swami Durga Das, 68, uses his home as the center of the operations for this non-profit organization.
The River Fund, whose motto “feed everyone…no matter what”, gives out over 50,000 pounds of food each week, with men and women on line from all different backgrounds. With the line consisting of single parent households, senior citizens, or even working class people, they all have one thing in common: they depend on the assistance each week from The River Fund. Many line up for food and other supplies for their families as early as 2 am and in any sort of weather condition.
Swami Durga Das smiles and chats with as many people on line as possible, even distributing food among the large line as he juggles the craziness of the early morning. He talks of his excitement to see one family in particular, stopping mid-sentence when the mother and son eventually come around the corner in order to pick up the two-year-old Jefferson. “This cute little guy right here—he’s my favorite.”
While passing out food, Das talks of his troubled days where he was heavily involved with drugs. At the same time, HIV and AIDS were impacting those around him, leading to his partner’s death in 1988. Das explains how the meeting of his Brooklyn-born spiritual teacher, Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavat, helped him see the world from a different perspective. She had founded The River Fund and other groups like it, with Das studying with her for more than 30 years before her passing.
Moving inside to a corner room and out of the cold, he smiles as he talks about Ma, “It’s all about the death of the ego; the death of the I. I mean—we all have to have an I, but not the I that’s all about me.” He looks down at his tattoo-covered hands, “She taught me how the fastest way to God, no matter what you believe in, is through service.”
Durga quickly jumps from the story of his past to what the River Fund is all about, showing much enthusiasm for the new projects the non-profit has recently began. Das explains, “The River Fund is really a poverty front line center. The fight against poverty starts by taking it personally and understanding the needs of each person on the line outside.” The rumble of the TV from the living room is barely heard as those who currently wait inside to get warm laugh loudly.
Although food products are donated, Das strives himself on providing the best for people on line. Foods such as meat, chicken, fruits, and vegetables are passed out.
Das explains, “People shouldn’t be forced to eat something that they don’t need or want. I’m a vegetarian, but we serve meat. If I don’t eat meat, it doesn’t mean that someone else shouldn’t.”
Stella Loranca, next-door neighbor to Das, comes outside multiple times to watch as the crowd slowly dies down. “He truly is an incredible man. The least I can do to help is let them use my backyard to store empty, flat boxes the food was in until they’re done for the day.”
Once the busy morning died down, Swami Durga Das travelled to Hofstra University where he spoke at the Long Island Food Coalition. The daylong conference allows for an open discussion highlighting healthier food choices, innovative techniques for sustainable food, and programs around Long Island that have initiated sustainably grown foods into their communities.
His presentation to the crowded room focused on The River Fund’s work thus far on dealing with poverty. He said, “Our children’s future depends on us taking poverty and sustainable living much more serious so that we can provide them with a better and brighter future.”
The River Fund goes much further than a food pantry. Since the office is open six days a week, they try to help their clients with benefits like Social Security and Medicaid. There are even young teenagers handing out vitamins, now that the River Fund provides nutritional education for those on line. Other programs include the community donating school supplies or clothing items to the pantry and even a new scholarship program for teenagers looking to continue their education but cannot afford to.
Das emphasizes the organization’s strength is due to the hard-working volunteers and employees who come in each day looking forward to making a change in the community.
Shirley Rice, COO of The River Fund, explains how she got in a car accident and had to use food pantry for all of her food and other services during her recovery. She says, “One day, I’m on line and Swami came up to me asking what I was doing. He asked me to work for him; I asked how long—like any reasonable person—and he said, ‘What do you mean how long? Until we’re all done!”