by Kia Shaun Walton
On a chilly Christmas Eve morning, while many were home with loved ones taking in the winter season’s holidays, a cheerful woman stood at the end of an efficient assembly line. Offering a warm plate of food and even warmer season’s greetings, she pauses briefly to help a gentleman adjust his breakfast plate. Gingerly, she moves the milk carton to make space for his mug before he sits down to join what will become thousands of other San Francisco community members who will benefit from the free meal.
The woman, dressed in all black, save for a crisp double-breasted white chef’s coat, an embroidered orange GLIDE heart resting just above her own, speaks to each guest. She shares a laugh, a smile, even joking gaily to one man that he could be “Santa Claus’s brother.” The ease of her efforts, the sincerity of her charm, she embodies “the heart of GLIDE.” New president and CEO of the GLIDE Foundation, she is none other than San Francisco’s own Dr. Gina Fromer.
Born and raised in Bayview Hunters Point, a sixth-generation San Franciscan known relatably as “Dr. Gina,” and a past recipient of GLIDE services herself, she explains, “I am just truly honored to be back full circle in an organization that gave me so much back when I was raising my own kids.” Prior to earning her doctorate and just a few years before embarking on her remarkable journey of service, Dr. Gina too stood in line.
It was the early ‘90s and means were slim. But like many, she centered her two young children and simply did what she must. Dr. Gina explains: “I distinctly remember feeling a little bit of shame … I was scared to go because at that point, everybody was not like the village anymore,” recalling growing up as a child in Hunters Point where she remembers “[not] feeling embarrassed because I saw so many kids from the neighborhood … it was like the whole village was there because we all needed it.” Years later, Dr. Gina shares, “It was just me, individually as a mom, going to do this.” She did not go alone entirely, however, bringing with her a necessary dose of “resilience and self-determination,” as well as her mother, who stood in line with her daughter for moral support.
Dr. Gina searches for the words to describe her mother, a woman who herself brought six children on three buses “when the Black Panthers gave [out] the chickens in Potrero Hill, and my mom – all of us [siblings] in line – coming home with bags of food … for us to eat.” Finding one suitable, she continues: “She was very courageous in how she approached, you know, grabbing free things for us … She made us feel like it was a day and an event – like we’re gonna go do this and come back and make a big dinner.” Though Dr. Gina and her mother faced similar challenges decades apart, she assures “all the values and things [my mother] tried to instill in me are definitely showing up in my traditions and how I raise my kids and how I’m raising my daughter now.”
And quite evidently, how GLIDE’s new North Star now serves her beloved community. Dr. Gina says, “We need to make sure everybody gets fed with love and with dignity.” The grits, eggs, toast and pear breakfast, beginning at 8:00 a.m. is the first of three meals that will be served by GLIDE’s dedicated volunteers. At 11:00 a.m., community members in need may once again descend GLIDE’s stairs to take a seat in Mo’s Kitchen for a hot meal. This time, holiday diners can expect a cut of the over 3,000 pounds of prime rib, donated by Joe Betz, owner of San Francisco’s House of Prime Rib and longtime friend of the GLIDE Foundation.
Community members wind around the crowded cafeteria. A man asks for a bag to take a few pears with him. Volunteers and staff happily attend to the regulars and first timers with equal care and respect. Through GLIDE’s Daily Free Meal program, the organization continues its legacy as a hub of human kindness and a model of inspiring community impact. “It is so fulfilling. The radical inclusivity, where everyone is welcome, the unconditional love, the truth telling, all of that is a part of GLIDE. And I’m just super happy to be part of it,” says Dr. Gina.
Unsurprisingly, her October 2023 appointment to president and CEO of the GLIDE Foundation was well received – not least by the legendary Rev. Cecil Williams, celebrated visionary, human rights advocate, and nearly 40 year religious leader of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church of San Francisco, the “spiritual community housed within the sanctuary at 330 Ellis St.” According to Dr. Gina, “[Rev.] Cecil basically told the entire board that Gina is in this position and y’all need to let her lead. Let her do her thing. She’s going to move this organization forward.” Backed by this humanitarian giant, who was recently recognized in the New York Times for his 60 years of service, Dr. Gina shares with gratitude, “He totally supports me. And I just felt the love the first time we met.”
From the board to the breakfast line, Dr. Gina is an easy leader to believe in. With over 20 years of hands on, change-making leadership, including her work with the San Francisco Head Start Program, later serving as district vice president of YMCA San Francisco and the East Bay YMCA’s regional vice president, then chief executive officer of the San Francisco Education Fund, and most recently, chief executive officer of The Children’s Council of San Francisco, Dr. Gina is a legend in the making.
When asked about her preparation for her current role as president and CEO of the GLIDE Foundation, Dr. Gina recognizes, “I learned how to lead at the YMCA.” She explains, “You have to learn how to be in the back because a leader doesn’t lead from the front. That means all your staff are so important. How you go forward is that you’re taking people with you. You’re moving them forward. And I had to learn that.” She finishes, “When you become a true leader, you’re leading from behind, which is amazing.”
While her credentials alone tell a story of sustained community investment, there is no shortage of social justice colleagues who are eager to second her leadership. California Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, who donned a volunteer jacket and served up scores of meals herself, reflects on working with this humble hometown hero: “Well, it’s incredible to be with her this morning. She’s really an inspirational person, so dedicated, so positive … and always knowing that there’s always room in people’s hearts to lift them up and to give them aid.”
Speaking to the core ingredients to feed a community, heart, mind and soul, Dr. Gina offers: “You have to learn how to like people. You have to learn how to love people, really.” Dr. Gina continues, “I’ve always referred my clients to GLIDE for that safety net in the moment.” For some, that moment of food insecurity is longer than others. She assures that while Christmas Eve boasts a more decadent menu, rounding out the day’s offerings with an evening meal “of ham, turkey, and all of the fixings” she reminds, “we do this every day, 364 days a year and three meals a day.” With a line snaking out the door and a well run kitchen brimming with staff and volunteers to serve meal-goers on Christmas Eve, GLIDE is certainly “love in action.”
Dr. Gina’s impact at the helm of this nationally recognized organization is both immediate and inspiring. Jon Henry, executive director of the media podcast, “Both Sides of the Conversation,” says: “Dr. Gina Fromer brings stability to the community … It gives purpose; it gives people in this community an opportunity to see leadership that looks like them.” Curtis, a shift-lead and 19-year service provider with GLIDE, adds: “[Dr. Gina] came from a long way and she came from the other side of the city and she’s great. She’s going to be a perfect fit for us. She’s going to make it do what it do.”
And there is much to be done. Nestled in the heart of the Tenderloin, a San Francisco district “that’s dealing with the lowest of the lowest when it comes to drugs, homelessness, [and] unhoused people here in this community,” says Henry. “[Dr. Gina’s] vision on where she wants to take GLIDE in the future is going to be phenomenal for the city.” Aiming to “create a radically inclusive, just and loving community mobilized to alleviate suffering and break the cycles of poverty and marginalization,” GLIDE’s mission statement is only amplified under the direction of Dr. Gina Fromer.
Dr. Gina asserts: “GLIDE is not the walls in the Tenderloin … We’re a San Francisco organization. And so I want the city to know that we’re here for them.” Determined to broaden its reach and meet the community where it’s at, Dr. Gina shares the excitement of one who sees a better future: “We have mobile services coming online in 2025, where we’re going to go into different communities, work with different organizations, and do mental health, food, all of that in a mobile van … That’s what GLIDE is all about, taking our work citywide.” Dr. Gina finishes figuratively: “The walls are coming down. We’re all about San Francisco. And of course, at the heart of the Tenderloin is what we do. But we’re all about spreading our love and support throughout the city.” Though the mobile program takes off formally in a year, the organization distributed 250 meals via their “Glide on the Go” van to community members in need that morning alone.
Her vision for the already expansive GLIDE Foundation is as inspired as it is pragmatic. Offering a variety of critical services for community members, including but not limited to a family, youth and childcare center, harm reduction, a reintegration program, a women’s center and access to free Covid-19 testing, the GLIDE Foundation relies on volunteers and community benevolence to make the magic happen.
Dr. Gina reminds: “We always need donations. We’re serving 2,400 meals a day to our community. So donations, volunteer[ing], your time, your treasure, your talent … whatever you want to do, we can offer a space for that.” Sophie Won and her fiance are two San Francisco residents who have made space to volunteer with GLIDE. Won states: “it’s been a really good way just to get involved with the community and kind of step outside our bubble and really connect with people … Now we just come every weekend without thinking about it…we’re really thankful for it.”
Another GLIDE supporter, Safety Monitor Iris Butler, attests to the rewarding nature of the work, stating: “I’m a people person and I like to feed the homeless. You know, I like to give back. This [was] our house when I had four kids. So this is the first step. This is where I came.”
From those served in the community to those serving in the community, Dr. Gina asserts, “GLIDE is an amazing organization,” smiling as she surveys the bustling cafeteria that, like every day, will serve thousands of people. Dr. Gina thinks back to when she was “pre-law” and could have claimed a stake in “corporate America.” Musing momentarily, she traces her steps to becoming the president and CEO of one of the most renowned centers for social justice in the nation with global aspirations. She remembers the encouragement she received from her late husband of 25 years, the well-loved Reed Fromer, recalling him saying “whatever you decide to do I’m going to support you.” A full circle story of love, community, struggle and triumph, Dr. Gina nods to “divine intervention.” She concludes: “I think that whatever that guiding light is that brings people to this moment, that’s [what is] guiding my career. And I think it has me exactly where I need to be right now at GLIDE.”
Kia Shaun Walton (she/he) is a freelance journalist and educator working in the Bay Area. Kia is committed to justice, integrity and community. Please direct any inquiries to email@example.com.