Kris MacKellar and his good friend Barbara Miller share a laugh.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Coast Life

Unsung Santa Cruz: Bringing smiles to the faces of isolated, vulnerable seniors has done the same for him

Kris MacKellar has done all kinds of jobs in his lifetime, but none more fulfilling than driving his aging Ford pickup around the hills of Santa Cruz County during the pandemic, bringing food and kindness to seniors and people with disabilities.

For seven days a week, morning, noon and night, during the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kris MacKellar had one crucial mission: Be a lifeline for vulnerable, isolated seniors and people with disabilities by delivering nutritious meals to them all over Santa Cruz County.

Each day MacKellar filled up his run-down gold 1993 Ford pickup truck, the one sporting a battered camper shell, with breakfast, lunch and dinner packages from SwingTime Catering in Watsonville.

Driving the remote and precarious mountain roads kept him wide awake, though the constant driving could be exhausting. The job didn’t pay much, but the experience continues to inform his philosophy and ambitions.

“I feel good about myself when I help others — there is nothing I would rather do,” said MacKellar, 51, who has lived on Santa Cruz’s Westside for 15 years with his wife and two of his three children.

By the time it was 10 p.m. and he had settled into a favorite bar to unwind with a root beer and some competitive darts, he had distributed 120 free meals to 40 people in Santa Cruz County.

MacKellar and the other 10 drivers hired by Brwn Bags — an online mobile prepared-meals ordering service — delivered 700 meals a day, serving residents from Gilroy to Boulder Creek.

Patrick Eze, owner of Brwn Bags, also owns Sub Shuttle, a ground transportation service in the Bay Area. Eze considers MacKellar a resourceful and respected driver, and a perfect fit to help older adults. “He is intelligent, compassionate, patient with seniors and has lots of wisdom,” Eze said. “I call him a gentle, humble giant.”

Brwn Bags’ efforts are part of Great Plates Delivered, a larger statewide program to deliver nutritious meals to sequestered seniors and other adults at high risk from COVID-19.

The project, launched in April 2020 by Gov. Gavin Newsom, was also designed to provide an economic stimulus to businesses struggling to stay open during the pandemic. When the project ended in July 2021, it had “provided more than 37 million meals to eligible participants in 40 local governments,” according to the governor’s Office of Emergency Services website.

Locally, Santa Cruz County spokesperson Jason Hoppin said the project delivered more than 1,000 healthy meals each day to adults 60 and older. More than 1,200 were enrolled and about 485,000 meals were delivered during the 15-month project. Bilingual staff were added to field telephone inquiries.

According to Karina Aragon, a senior analyst for the county’s Human Services Department, the project paid out $11 million to local businesses that prepared the meals.

Kris MacKellar and Barbara Miller.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“It was very touching to hear from people whose partner was near the end of their life and to learn how much they valued contact with the drivers and appreciated the delivered meals,” Aragon said. “There was one less thing for seniors to worry about.”

For MacKellar, whose dad almost died after contacting COVID, one of his daily stops proved life-changing. He became fast friends with 83-year-old Barbara Miller, who needed the human connection just as much as a good meal.

There was one less thing for seniors to worry about.

Because of the threat of the virus, the Soquel resident couldn’t visit her husband of 37 years, who ultimately died last year of blood clots, in a Santa Cruz skilled nursing facility. MacKellar provided a warmth and goodwill that helped sustain Miller during a time of heartbreak and loneliness.

“Kris is such a personable and nice fellow,” said Miller, who lost a son 14 years ago. “Kris always brought a religious book for me when he arrived and I gave him Rice Krispies treats or chocolate chip cookies. He is like a son to me.”

MacKellar found time to do odd jobs around her home during the pandemic, such as painting, repairing an old VCR and constructing a rock garden in the front yard.

Kris MacKellar and Barbara Miller with the rock garden he built for her.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

She is a kind woman. I make her day and she makes mine as well. We provide comfort to one another during these tough times.

On Wednesdays, MacKellar would share two bags of groceries that Miller received from Twin Lakes Church with the unhoused in San Lorenzo Park.

“She is a kind woman,” said MacKellar, who still regularly visits the former assistant librarian and movie theater usher who had a bit part as an orphan in “The Sun Comes Up,” a 1949 movie starring Jeanette MacDonald and Lassie. “I make her day and she makes mine as well.”

MacKellar, a longtime driver for Sub Shuttle, is adept at adapting to changing conditions.

He has been a pool cleaner for movie stars living in Montecito, the owner of a surf shop in Boston, a winery tour guide, a producer of skateboard videos, a songwriter, a guitarist and keyboard player in a band, manager of a hunting and fishing department at a sporting goods store, and a chef preparing vegetarian and vegan meals for a child care center.

MacKellar was also the co-owner of a barbecue catering service, a repairman of just about any type of electronic device, and a producer of a documentary advocating for the preservation of an estuary on the Massachusetts coast.

Kris MacKellar.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

I feel fortunate to have had just about every job I wanted to do in my life.

“I feel fortunate to have had just about every job I wanted to do in my life,” said MacKellar, who is a graduate of the New England Institute of Art. And he still has a few more jobs in his future.

Friends say he is a good listener and problem-solver who has helped them to cope with a lack of self-esteem and addictions.

“Kris is a level-headed guy and an excellent captain of our dart team,” said Lance Kreisman, 56, a patent lawyer. “He is laid back but accessible. If someone doesn’t have a place to live, he welcomes them to his home for a few days.”

MacKellar said he intends to earn an undergraduate degree in psychology and become a marriage and family therapist as well as a child development specialist. Yet the left-hander who dreamed of pitching for the Boston Red Sox said he is especially interested in sports psychology and wants to help professional athletes successfully adapt to sudden adulation, fame and fortune.

Kris MacKellar and Barbara Miller share an embrace.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“Athletes who go from no money to lots of money need to develop a healthy mindset,” MacKellar said. “They need to get their head straight and not lose focus on what they do best and were hired to do.”

Yet for all his eclectic endeavors, MacKellar’s primary focus hasn’t veered from what makes him feel best — helping others.

“I am a quiet, reserved person,” he said. “I have a lot of energy that I want to use to turn around someone’s bad day to a good day. I wish I had more to give.”