There was a time when Richard Northrop would routinely look away from a raggedy beggar whose cardboard sign was scrawled with the message "Please help me."
Now, the Laguna Woods octogenarian stops to give money to those in need.
"If I've got it, I give it to them," he said recently, standing in a Lake Forest food pantry. "These people are not joking. They are destitute."
The inspiration for Northrop's late-life change of heart comes from the hours he puts in each week at , an Orange County nonprofit that fights homelessness and hunger.
Belief in the essential goodness of people is what now drives Northrop, who hit the 80-year mark Sunday, to push for a new program that allows food pantry "clients" to shop the warehouse like a grocery store.
Northrop and other volunteers who work in the pantry on Fridays now walk each visitor through the aisles to select what is best for their family.
The new method reduces waste, because the pantry isn't giving out unwanted items, but it also "adds a sense of dignity," he said.
Typically, food pantries hand out prepared bags of groceries.
Northrop said he used to wonder where the donations, whether food or money, really ended up.
"I've stopped being judgmental," he said. "They aren't taking anyone to the cleaners, believe me."
Three days before his 80th birthday, Northrop spent the afternoon in the food pantry, escorting clients through the aisles, labeled like a grocery store.
He put together a bag for a woman who couldn't enter the pantry because she had no shoes, he said.
"I don't know these people from a hole in the wall," he said. "How would I know what she needs? I never met her before."
To tailor the groceries she would take home, he chatted with her about her needs, discovering she had no use for rice, beans or pasta.
"Had we not known that, she would have gone home with exactly what she and her household don't need," he said.
Naysayers who assume "people would take everything on the shelves" are simply wrong, Northrop said he has learned firsthand. The clients "are incredibly selective," he said.
Indeed, clients often tell him they should not take as much as he is handing them, because the person after them may need it.
"They are cognizant of the next person in line," he said. "Even in incredible need, you find sensitivity to other people in need."
One Client's Story
Foothill Ranch resident Scott Slotkin arrived Friday afternoon to pick up food for himself, his wife, their daughter and the daughter's 6-week-old baby.
Slotkin, who last visited the pantry in May, said his wife fell sick soon after that. Now she's on a special diet, with minimal fat, to speed her recovery, he said.
Northrop and Slotkin shopped the storehouse together, picking out basics: canned tuna, peanut butter, tissue boxes.
They checked calorie counts, selecting low-fat foods for Slotkin's ill wife.
"I don't want to be picky," Slotkin said as he stood alongside Northrop, placing items into a grocery cart.
His attitude is the rule among clients who visit SCO, Northrop said.
"People are exceedingly gracious and respectful," he said.
But the most important aspect of the new program may not be the tailored food selection, although SCO staffers said more people have begun stopping by the pantry on Fridays, and asking for Northrop by name.
The chance to develop a relationship—learn about family troubles, job searches, accomplishments or setbacks—is a bonus for both volunteers and clients alike, Northrop said.
"I just find that if I ask a few questions ... many don't have anyone who cares," he said, blinking away sudden tears.
One woman who sticks in Northrop's mind is 65 years old, a victim of a "wrecked marriage" that left her destitute, shattered both physically and emotionally, he said.
After her relationship ended, she went to school to earn her high school diploma. She supplements her food with visits to the South County Outreach Pantry. At each visit, Northrop checks in with her to hear how her job search is going.
After her groceries are loaded, she shares the same sentiment, he said. Once she gets back on her feets, she's going to start "repaying" the nonprofit for its help.
Northrop believes her. "As a result of our help, one day she is going to help others."
This woman is no outlier, he said.
"She is just one of many [clients] I have an association with and a profound respect for," he said. "I have just found people to be open, cheerful and magnanimous."
Enjoying the company of those who come by the pantry is rewarding but doesn't make the job easier, he said.
"It's an awful lot of work," he admitted. "I get so hoarse I can't talk. ... It is exhausting. At the end [of my shift], I am ready to quit."
Those same people—the ones who exhaust him, who share crushing tales of misfortune, woe and pain—are why he doesn't give up.
"People are hurting: h-u-r-t-i-n-g," he said, choking up with tears. "That's what brings me back."
Northrop and his wife, Judy, have been volunteering at South County Outreach about five years. Judy Northrop now works part-time as an administrative assistant at the organization.
The Northrops said the weather drew them to California from their home in upstate New York, but the people are what keep them here.
"We are so grateful we moved," Richard Northrop said. "In our later years, this is where we're meant to be."