Catholic Sentinel photos by Ed Langlois
Don Gainer prepares to stow cans to be given to needy families.  
Catholic Sentinel photos by Ed Langlois
Don Gainer prepares to stow cans to be given to needy families.

On this morning, Don Gainer has a problem.

A freezer at Ascension Parish has sputtered to a halt and he must find a place for hundreds of pounds of frozen chicken. If he fails, Christmas dinner for hundreds of Southeast Portland families will be spoiled.

Gainer — slim, spry and 82 — calmly but firmly marshals a team of fellow retirees who shuffle boxes, rearrange piles and wedge every piece of poultry into other freezers.

On top of that, an extra large shipment has come in from the Oregon Food Bank and the parish's St. Vincent de Paul volunteers feverishly stow it temporarily. Hungry families will be coming later that day. The pantry helps about 135 households per month. And a few days before Christmas, Ascension volunteers assembled 800 boxes of food to provide Christmas dinners to 250 families.

Gainer, one of the oldest of the 42 St. Vincent de Paul volunteers, looks like one of the youngest. He works like a man half his age, lugging loads while answering questions and making dozens of decisions a minute.

"He's so dedicated to this," says St. Vincent de Paul volunteer Stan Somich. "And he's like that little Energizer bunny rabbit."

"He works just as hard as I do," says Keith Bailey, who is decades younger than Gainer.

Gainer, who ran a family auto parts store for decades, is in charge of procuring supplies for the food pantry. He devises mathematical formulas to try to match supplies to the number of those in need. But he realizes that he can rarely predict what kind of food will be available and how many people will present themselves.

That's especially true at Christmas.

"This time of year, you grab what you can," he says.

Ascension St. Vincent de Paul is a tightly run ship. Only about 15 percent of the budget gets spent on food. The rest is offered as assistance for rent, utilities and medications.

Every week, parishioners donate food. At Christmas, they up their contributions, filling empty boxes provided by St. Vincent de Paul. Often, they give money, which Gainer can put to use at the Oregon Food Bank, buying mounds of healthy goods to bring back to Ascension.  

Ascension has some longtime volunteers who have embrace their niches. The fellow who likes to organize the frozen poultry for Christmas boxes is know as "The Chicken Man." Down with the spuds is the "Potato Lady." Gainer says the volunteers love what they do.

The whole process has fortified Gainer's faith. Time and again, he sees divine influence: just enough food, always more space in the refrigerator, a donor coming through at the last minute, a volunteer knowing just the thing to do.  

"If you turn it over to the Lord, it never fails," he says. "For me, it's a three for one deal: I put in one, God gives three."

And just when Gainer gets discouraged, feeling taken advantage of perhaps, God does something definitive. For example, Gainer delivered food to a couple and saw that they were driving a new, expensive car, quite a show next to his old, simple auto. But then the woman thanked the neighbor who had loaned her the vehicle, because the family had no car at all.

"Every time you think you catch someone, God hits you with a two-by-four," Gainer says.

Gainer was trained to be a teacher and believed in giving students what they earned. Early in his career, he flunked seven seniors who needed the credit to graduate. The principal overturned the grades. Gainer turned in his resignation and came to work in the family business. When his father fell ill, he took over.

Eventually, Gainer returned to education, coordinating a mechanic training program between Portland Community College and auto dealers. When he retired, he got more and more involved at his beloved parish.  

Gainer was not thrilled to be the subject of a news story. "I'm below the radar," he says. "The less I'm out there the better." But his peers honored him as St. Vincent de Paul volunteer of the year.

Gainer does more than work at St. Vincent de Paul. He's a sacristan and greeter. He takes part in Bible study and helps with the annual parish spaghetti dinner.

Gainer volunteers at the Francis Center on Southeast 82nd Avenue, which provides food and clothes to needy people in the district.

"He's been very loyal in his duties," says Franciscan Father Patrick Evard, longtime director of the center. Father Evard sees Gainer as a strong liaison between the center and the parish who is skilled at public relations.  

"I hope I'm that good at his age," says Franciscan Father Ben Innes, pastor of Ascension. "He's a good soul; he's energetic. He's the kindest man and he brings out the best in people."