April 11, 2011

Opalek left 'capable people' in charge at Merced County Rescue Mission

A sign on the door of the Merced Rescue Mission was the first clue something was different at 1921 Canal St. A typewritten note said the mission would close for about an hour Monday afternoon so staff and residents could attend the burial service of the man they called an inspiration, a father and a friend.

Saturday's death of Herb Opalek, the mission's executive director, leaves a hole at the organization that's helped hundreds of Mercedians going through hard times. But leaders say they aren't worried about the mission's future.

Opalek, who was 66, had begun planning for his retirement and was training his staff to run the mission when that day came.

But nobody expected it would come so soon. "He left very capable people in charge," said Nancy Brawley, chairwoman of the mission's board of directors. "He believed in training people in the job, and we're not concerned at all about the present people."

Those people include his assistant, Ginger Osby, and the Rev. Prapai Wanlarb- kam, director of ministry. Opalek told the Sun-Star in 2010 that he was grooming Osby to be his replacement, though his successor has yet to be named.

"There's a lot that I would have still wanted to learn from him, but I'm confident that I have the knowledge and abilities," Osby said. "Our programs are still running. The projects we're involved with are still moving forward. We'll be taking it one day at a time. We'll work to finish what he started."

Opalek, a New York native and an ordained Orthodox rabbi, came to Merced in 2004 to run the mission. Under his direction, the mission expanded from 30 beds to 62, and it opened a separate facility for women in 2006. In his first year, he worked to expand vocational training and arranged for hospital interns to provide on-site health care for mission residents. He also expanded the mission's free food program to outlying areas in the county. The mission serves about 13,000 meals each month, Osby said.

Brawley said Opalek and his staff worked closely with residents so that by the time they finished the program, they were ready to apply work skills in new jobs and live on their own. He also helped place residents with other rescue missions throughout the United States and helped find scholarships so residents could continue on a path of education.

"They had the support to keep them on the right track," Brawley said.

The mission's board of directors was scheduled to meet Monday night to discuss how the organization would operate after Opalek's death, but Brawley said it was unlikely that anything would change. "He did such an outstanding job. It's not to say that it won't be different without him, but he did an excellent job of getting the organization prepared," she said.

In a 2009 Merced Sun-Star column headlined "Changing of the Guard," Opalek wrote about the new elected leaders taking their seats on the Merced City Council. He wrote:

"The terms guard and watchman are often interchangeable. We have set new guards and watchmen over our city and I am reminded of the words of the Psalmist: 'Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city the watchmen stand guard in vain.' I pray that God grant this city more blessing and opportunity with these our new watchmen and guards."

With any luck, the same will hold true for the new watchman and guards at the Merced Rescue Mission.

Online editor Brandon Bowers may be reached at (209) 385-2464 or bbowers@mercedsun-star.com.

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