Thirty years ago, Swami Durga Das baked a dozen chocolate chip cookies, which initiated the River Fund’s first effort to deliver baked goods to Manhattan nonprofits that cared for the terminally ill. “This whole project started with one dozen cookies,” he says.
Das – universally known as Swami, is the founder and CEO of River Fund, a nonprofit whose mission is to “feed and empower those served to move beyond the lines of poverty,” according to their website. It has moved beyond baked treats and gifts for people with HIV/ AIDS and other terminal diseases to providing food, resources and educational help to the community of Richmond Hill.
Swami, 73, was born and raised just a mile from River Fund’s office in Queens, in a mostly Italian neighborhood. He was called Michael Patello then, “I don’t believe in living in the past,” he says. While still in his early 20s, Swami traveled to India and discovered his spirituality, which he describes more as a mission to help people than a religion. The spiritual teacher who guided him also helped him choose the name, Swami Durga Das.
On a Saturday morning at 7:30 am, Swami walks into his house in Richmond Hill, Queens. He is wearing a blue sweatshirt, jeans, glasses and a face mask.
He transformed the lower two floors of his home into River Fund’s headquarters in 2002.
He greets everyone with a fist bump or hug -- including a 10-year-old volunteer. “Did you get that game card I left you?” Swami asks. The volunteer thanks Swami, who continues up the stairs to his bright, second floor office, filled with thriving plants.
“I started this project as a way to combat AIDS,” says Swami. In his 20s, he moved to California, where the surging epidemic took the life of his partner and several friends. When he returned to New York in 1991, he created River Fund and started its baking project.
A few years later, Swami broadened River Fund’s mission and created a mobile food truck to serve communities in Queens. Every year, River Fund’s mission grew, and it expanded from a completely volunteer organization to one now operating with a roughly $5 million dollar annual budget underwritten by contributions and grants, according to the organization’s 2020 990 tax form.
The fight to end poverty should start at an early age, Swami believes, so it’s important to offer educational programs for children and make sure that they’re well nourished. River Fund’s many initiatives include a “Cradle to College” program that provides a baby shower for pregnant mothers, then every 6 weeks for an infant’s first year, afterwards guiding these babies throughout their education.
Besides “Cradle to College” and food distribution programs, River Fund offers immigration and SNAP services and mentoring programs; it provides children's clothing and other resources for families in need.
Throughout Swami’s travels, he noticed how much people loved and appreciated food around the world. “Food is a language,” he says. As River Fund shifted from AIDS to reducing poverty, food was a big way to do it.
Karina Izquierdo, director of empowerment services at River Fund, has worked there for five years, starting as an intern and a volunteer. When she first interviewed with Swami, “as with every job, you are intimidated to meet the boss, so I didn’t know what to expect,” she recalls. He greeted her with a hug. “Swami would literally give someone the shoes off of his feet. I’ve seen him do it.” She now helps oversee River Fund’s programs and everyday operations.
Outside the building this Saturday morning, volunteers are sifting through hundreds of boxes of food and setting up large white folding tables, preparing to distribute gallons of milk, boxes of cereal and bundles of asparagus. It looks like an outdoor grocery store.
This food pantry materializes every Saturday and Wednesday morning. It draws 1,300 to 1,400 people every Saturday, fewer on Wednesday, Senior Day. New York City requires food pantries to distribute enough groceries for at least three meals a week, but River Fund determines amounts based on family size, giving each family enough food to last a week. It distributes around 2 million pounds of food monthly.
“As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to exacerbate food insecurity and inequality in New York City, organizations like River Fund New York are needed now more than ever to assist families in need,” said City Council Member Adrienne Adams in a statement.
As recipients line up at the corner of Lefferts Boulevard and 89th Avenue, stretching to the corner of the block, Swami makes his way to the front of the line. He makes googly eyes and funny faces at a baby until it laughs. But he’s also impatient, knowing that some families are in so much need that they started lining up the night before.
“Why haven't we started yet?” Swami asks.
A volunteer responds, “All of the volunteers are still trying to get everything together.”
So Swami stands at the front of the line and starts working, taking the ticket each family is issued and greeting them. “Good morning, hola, como estas?” He never fully learned Spanish, but in this largely Latino neighborhood of RIchmond Hill, he’s learned a few phrases. “I speak some Italian and they’re pretty similar,” he says.
A family pushing a red grocery cart full of empty tote bags and small children approaches. “Oh, here comes my favorite family,” says Swami with an excited smile. Most of the participants come every Saturday.
A mother and son present their ticket next. “How old are you?” Swami asks the kid.
“You should come volunteer with us,” says Swami. The kid smiles and says to his mother as they walk away, “I didn't know that was an option to volunteer here!” He later signs up.
“I did that because I want the kids to feel like family,” Swami explains. “I don't want them to feel like outsiders.”
Naomi Lawson, the benefits management leader, learned about River Fund through her mom, a volunteer here. When Lawson met Swami, he was wearing a t-shirt and shorts and passing out candy. “I had no idea he was the boss,” she says. She started as an intern here six years ago and now Naomi oversees the internship program.
“If I had to describe the spirit of Swami, it would be ‘unique,’ Lawson says. “He’s one of a kind.”
“I used to hear a lot about ‘throwaway people,’” says Swami. At River Fund, “it doesn’t matter if you’re poor, gay, an immigrant, or have AIDS,” he says. “Everyone deserves love.”