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2023 Silver Medal: Peninsula Man Fights Poverty For Decades, Uplifts Others To Do the Same

REDWOOD CITY (KPIX 5) -- For nearly five decades, he's been fighting poverty and planting seeds so others can expand the work.

Each week, a truck unloads 5,000 pounds of food weekly from the South San Francisco produce terminal. The fresh produce, from apples to tomatoes, is not ideal for stores to sell, but still good to eat.

That's how Larry Purcell has been giving away free food for 47 years.

"We feed, clothe, shelter and educate the very poor in the name of Christ," Purcell said of his mission to the poor.

Most of the donated produce goes to Peninsula soup kitchens like St. Anthony's parish in Menlo Park. The rest feeds up to 80 families who wait in line on Fridays at the Catholic Worker House near downtown Redwood City.


Purcell, a former priest, founded the Catholic Worker House in 1975. He says his work is part of the national Catholic Worker movement, committed to service, simple living, and nonviolence.

"We ask, 'How can there be so many so poor in the richest country in the history of life?'" Purcell explained.

He blames wrong government priorities that have created groups of winners and losers.

"They will build nuclear weapons that will destroy everything, and we can't build housing for the homeless," he said.

Besides free food bags, the Catholic Worker House also cooks hot breakfasts twice weekly for 50 homeless folks. Those who come are often drug-addicted, former inmates, troubled teens, and new immigrants.

"We live with the so-called losers," he stated. "We try to treat them like our brothers and sisters."

LEARN MORE: Jefferson Awards for Public Service

Purcell is helping Aurora Thibault, her husband, and two kids get on their feet. He met the recent immigrants from the Philippines while they were motel-surfing and struggling to make it in the expensive Bay Area.

Purcell has been providing housing and training to update their skills. As a result, Thibault's husband now has an electronics job and she's close to getting certified in accounting. They have hope and can plan for their future.

"I think it was an angel sent by God. He helps us a lot," Thibault said with tears in her eyes.

Over the years, Purcell has multiplied his good work. His food giveaways from decades ago have morphed into Second Harvest, San Mateo County's largest food bank. He's spun off programs that house former prison inmates and day laborers.

Purcell has also raised seed money so several young couples could start their own Catholic Worker Houses in the Bay Area. Peter Stiehler and his wife launched the Catholic Worker Hospitality House in San Bruno in 1996 with Purcell's financial support and mentorship.

"He could have created a big, massive organization that he was the head of. Instead, he stayed small and helped others," said Stiehler.

Purcell and Catholic Worker House have funded $60,000 in scholarships a year, 1,000 bicycles for transportation needs in the last five years, and about $200,000 in stimulus money in the past two pandemic years.

He has done it without government money. Catholic Worker House operates mainly on individual donations and the Oakland nonprofit Philanthropic Ventures Foundation.

Purcell himself doesn't get paid. His wife, a retired teacher, supported the family as their two kids grew up.

"He's stayed humble, but he's done great work," Stiehler noted.

So, for fighting poverty for 47 years through Catholic Worker House, this week's Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Larry Purcell.

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