Martin Gowolo is a 54-year-old Sudanese refugee who was supporting his wife, eight children and two grandchildren as a dishwasher at the Grande Colonial Nine-Ten Restaurant in La Jolla before he was laid off when the coronavirus pandemic devastated the hotel and dining industry.

Fortunately, his family has been able to eat after connecting with Jesse Vigil, the San Diego director of Big Table, a nonprofit dedicated to helping low-wage workers in the hospitality industry who need anything from help paying the bills to help finding a doctor.

“We sat down and talked for almost an hour and he just listened to me as I shared my struggles of not being able to work and provide for my family,” Gowolo said. “He asked about my family and how they were doing. It felt like I was talking to an old friend. After hearing me out, Big Table gave me $500 in grocery gift cards to help feed my family. This was amazing and I couldn’t believe it. They don’t even know me. Jesse told me, ‘We appreciate all that you do for the industry. This is simply a gift that you never have to repay. We just want you to know that you are known, loved and cared for and we are here for you.’”

Infused by a $250,000 donation from the San Diego COVID-19 Community Response Fund, Big Table has been able to boost its services in responding to hundreds of others in situations similar to Gowolo.

The need is profound. A San Diego Workforce Partnership report showed those working in lower-paid, service-industry jobs, including fast food, retail, and hospitality, are impacted at a far greater rate than those in other fields. What’s more, retail, leisure, and hospitality employs more workers than any other sector in the regional economy.

In other words, says the report, it is the least financially secure workers who are at most risk in the COVID-19 crisis.

“The entire industry is in crisis right now, so we’re kind of in triage mode to help people who are barely scraping by,” Vigil said. Triage mode means paying a portion of a hospitality worker’s rent or buying groceries for a small family.

More than 350 Big Table clients have been helped so far through the grant from the Community Response Fund, which is hosted and administered by The San Diego Foundation in collaboration with county Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, who co-chairs the Board of Supervisors’ COVID-19 subcommittee.

Big Table clients in households with one or two members are seeing emergency assistance in the $250 range. Larger households can see up to $500 in rent payments or grocery store gift cards. Big Table also launched a recent “Care Blitz” in which 75 grocery store gifts amounting to $75 each were distributed to workers at Brockton Villa Restaurant and its sister eatery, Beaumont’s, in La Jolla. A second Care Blitz at a Pacific Beach Wendy’s ended with 25 gift cards given to the restaurant’s employees.

Big Table was founded by a former food critic who wanted to donate to a nonprofit supporting low-wage employees in the restaurant industry working long hours during shifts that kept them away from their families. When he couldn’t find any such organizations, he opened Big Table, first in Spokane, then in Seattle. The San Diego office opened in 2019.

The nonprofit works closely with its clients, meeting with them to assess their needs and investing time to build a relationship based on trust. “It might be someone whose car broke down, or perhaps someone who is struggling with mental health issues,” Vigil said. “It’s about us finding what they need and going through our network of resources to meet those needs.”

Edgar Uribe is such a client. Uribe was beginning to slow down after busing tables at Piatti La Jolla Italian Restaurant & Bar for more than a decade. “I was finding it really hard to walk cause my legs just literally gave out on me,” said Uribe, who is afflicted with multiple sclerosis that had been untended because he lacked health insurance. “I was going through a rough time.”

Thanks to Big Table’s network of connections, Uribe was able to see a physician who prescribed needed medication and referred him to a neurologist. “It’s awesome to see there’s still people, good people, that help others,” Uribe said.

Gowolo agrees. “I have so much respect for this organization and I would like to volunteer my time helping them,” he said. “I don’t know what I would have done without the help of Big Table.”

You can help other San Diego workers by donating today.