Giving Back : Retired, 81, and Scrounging for the Homeless

A version of this article first appeared in Senior Life, a monthly newspaper published in Los Angeles. Jack Shwimer says he has since received an outpouring of offers of help and is all set, thanks.

Why does Jack Shwimer, 81, go out alone around midnight at least four times a week and load up his car--trunk, back seat, floor, front seat--with food? Could it be because he has blond hair, blue eyes and is Jewish?

Partly.

Because Shwimer didn't have stereotypical looks, he was able to escape a roundup of Jews after the Nazis took over his native Poland in 1939. But because he could pass for German, the escaping Shwimer was picked up by the Russians on suspicion of being a spy and put in a Siberian prison camp for four years. It was that experience, "working 12 hours a day for a piece of bread," that inspired Shwimer to help Los Angeles' poor who don't have enough to eat.

From Westside restaurants and a San Fernando Valley supermarket that he calls on during his nocturnal rounds, Shwimer collects perfectly good food that would otherwise be thrown out.

He finishes collecting around 2 a.m., gets a few hours' sleep, then delivers the food to the Salvation Army, the Midnight Mission in Downtown L.A., a homeless assistance group a senior center and a church on the Westside. Most places that donate food to the needy cater to organizations, Shwimer says, "but somehow I'm getting all the food I need."

Shwimer started his project about five years ago after retiring from a successful career as an importer of sporting goods. "I got a mobile home, but I got bored in two weeks," he says. "I needed to do something." One day he spotted some bakery goods in a supermarket that were going to be dumped, remembered Siberia, and knew what his "something to do" had to be.

"How can I not be happy?" he asks. "People my age don't do anything. They just play cards. But I feel I'm sharing my life."

'How can I not be happy? People my age don't do anything. They just play cards. But I feel I'm sharing my life.'

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