April 9, 2024
Meet SFZC’s New Outreach Coordinator, Ellen Simpson

Photo by David Del Francia


By Tova Green

Ellen Simpson has been in the role of Outreach Coordinator for San Francisco Zen Center for only three months—and her work is taking off!

Ellen’s career in clinical health led her to do outreach work. She began working in a nursing home as an aide when she was sixteen to earn money for clothing and food, as her mother was a single mom with five children. In college, Ellen was engaged with basic science and earned a PhD in Biology. After becoming a mother she returned to school, earned an MA in genetic counseling, and worked in prenatal counseling for thirty years.

Ellen’s newest initiative for SFZC Outreach is called Socks for Our Neighbors. She was looking for a way to engage with people on the street and provide something useful, other than food, as the City Center kitchen is not available during this year of renovations to 300 Page Street. Her request to the wider sanghas for socks struck a chord and she received over 100 dozen socks. Socks are needed by those who live on the streets all year, but especially when it’s raining.

Fifteen volunteers attended the first sock event in February. Ellen provided a Buddhist context for the event, starting with a circle in which participants bowed, introduced themselves, and set their intentions for the day. Many had signed up online; Ellen had never met about half of the volunteers. Several had never engaged with unhoused people. They unpackaged the socks and walked together to an area near the central library, then divided into groups of two or three, each with a team head who had some experience.

Ellen walked with two young women who admitted that they were feeling tentative. Ellen explained their process: When they encountered someone, they would introduce themselves and ask if that person wanted to engage. If the person said yes, they would ask, “Do you want socks?” In addition to socks, the group distributed Hot Hands and some mardi-gras beads. After an hour the entire group gathered to bow out, and Ellen chanted the refuges.

A second Socks for Our Neighbors distribution event, Warm Hands to Warm Feet, will take place on May 12. All are welcome.

In addition to SFZC’s sock events, Ellen has begun collaborating with the San Francisco Night Ministry’s John Brett to offer an “Open Sangha” gathering once a month in the Tenderloin, modeled after the Night Ministry’s “Open Cathedral” and “Open Shabbat.” Volunteers meet in the afternoon to prepare 80–100 burritos. Some only volunteer for the food preparation, others only for the service and food distribution. To join these gatherings, contact Ellen at outreach@sfzc.org.

Ellen has also planned a Narcan Training on April 13 at SFZC’s Conference Center. Participants will learn to recognize when someone has overdosed and how to administer the overdose reversal drug Narcan. Additionally, she is continuing the Prison Pen Pal Project which SFZC has coordinated for many years. She matches incarcerated people with volunteer correspondents, answers correspondents’ questions, and is a correspondent herself.

Ellen has inherited several Outreach activities from former Outreach Coordinator Jeffrey Schneider, including leading a longstanding meditation group at Western Park apartments for low-income seniors; offering guided relaxation and meditation at Lighthouse for the Blind; and providing memorial services at five residences for people who were formerly unhoused and have a physical or psychiatric diagnosis.

She is also looking to develop more “one-off” volunteer opportunities for sangha members whose lives don’t allow them to make a regular commitment, including members of SFZC’s practice groups such as Young Urban Zen. Partnering with organizations with extensive experience in the city helps connect the City Center volunteers with the larger community.

Ellen was ordained as a Zen priest by Central Abbot David Zimmerman in 2023. Her Dharma name is Odo JoE, Responsive Way/Settled Wisdom.