Paying it Back: Unemployed Man Lifeline to 60 Neighbors

Herman Travis' shopping cart in S.F.
Many elderly and disabled residents in Bernal Heights depend on Herman Travis’s free weekly delivery of 1,300 lbs. of food from the San Francisco Food Bank. (Courtesy: Alex Bauzon)

Every Tuesday afternoon you can hear the wheels of Herman Travis’ shopping cart clacking against the cracked, sloped sidewalks of San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood — an annoying sound for any passerby. But for many residents in this low-income community the sound is heavenly — their angel, 50-year-old Travis.

“It makes me feel good, seeing them smile when I knock on their door, it just makes me feel good,” Travis said humbly.

Travis is the lifeline for many of those who depend on him to eat.

With a cheery disposition, he delivers food to 60 neighbors who eagerly wait for Travis’ visit. Many recipients are elderly and disabled. Getting out of the house to pick up food from the San Francisco Food Bank and pantries is nearly impossible.

So Travis brings the food to them.

“It means a lot to me, as a senior. I can’t get out. I’m sort of confined to my house. It’s just a blessing, a blessing, something you can depend on, Herman’s always there with a smile,” recipient Millie Sheehy said.

Travis partnered up with the S.F. Food Bank to make this do-good deed possible. For the past three years, a truck drops off 1,300 pounds of food at the Holly Courts low-income housing complex where he lives. A handful of volunteers help Travis sort and pack brown paper grocery bags. He loads his cart and off he goes, on his three-hour mission to feed his neighbors.

Herman Travis and a team of volunteers.
Herman Travis (second from right) and a team of volunteers.

“I don’t know how we would express it, except for saying that we would be completely lost without him,” Bebe Castaine, 81, said.

But besides feeding their stomachs, he also feeds their spirits. Everyone who answers the door beams with excitement, the smiles overflow.

“He spoils me rotten by coming to my door. And he’s always positive, he’s always got something nice to say. So I enjoy him,” said 93-year-old Millie Sheehy, who smiles wide and giggles like a schoolgirl when her “No. 1” drops by.

Travis knows the stories behind every drop off. The rapport, trust and loyalty are unique as they are special.

Knock. Knock. Knock. No answer. “Her mother’s been gone for a while, her mother died,” Travis explained with a deep, melancholy breath.

He takes a moment to catch his breath and shake the sadness, then heads up the steep sidewalk to the next visit.

Herman Travis and Toan Lam on a delivery.
Herman Travis and Toan on a delivery.

On the way to the next delivery, Travis, shared that he also has a lot to be grateful for. “I’m glad I’m healthy enough to do this,” he said in gratitude. This neighborhood angel has been unemployed for the past few months. His construction work dried up. Now he is applying for general assistance. He too depends on the food bank to get by.

It started when “I didn’t have no work,” he said fervently. “I’m paying back because they helped me, so I’m paying back, that’s what any human being should do. Pay back what people give you.”

Travis says he hopes others will do the same — give the gift of goodwill.

“It makes me feel good, seeing them smile when I knock on their door, it just makes me feel good,” Travis admitted emphatically.

For now, Travis said, he’ll continue to stay positive and that he’ll jump at the chance of any job when it comes around. While the future is uncertain for this neighborhood angel, one thing is clear — his current job, which doesn’t grant him a paycheck, is a job that feeds his soul.

What can YOU do this holiday season and in 2011 to help a family member, friend or stranger? You have more power than you may think.


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