Chicken Soup for the Soul

A regular at the Soup Kitchen created this portrait of Ron Bezon
A regular at the Soup Kitchen created this portrait of Ron Bezon

A regular at the Soup Kitchen created this portrait of Ron Bezon, Soup Kitchen Manager

Cliche title but the sentiment is 100% real. And it may not always be chicken soup but there is never a shortage of the key ingredient; love.

This frigid Monday morning I woke up in somewhat of a daze. My alarm was set for 6:15 am? AM? When was the last time I woke up that early? I stumbled around for a bit deciding if the rumbles in my stomach were from hunger or from loud bodily protests against being awake. I finally got dressed and headed towards my destination – St. Mary’s Soup Kitchen. Upon arrival, I see a large tattooed man repping the Steelers and ushering me inside; it’s Martin, one of the directors of the Soup Kitchen. He’s been with them for almost 10 years and is one of the most joyful people i’ve met. Not only does he regale you with positive energy but he has a great voice and sings along with many of the praise songs playing outside to greet those coming in for something to eat.

The schedule for the Soup Kitchen, which has been running every week, Monday-Saturday since 1870, is broken down into three parts. At 6:30, coffee is put out. At 7:30, coffee and pastries are handed out. At 9, a cup of soup, one PB&J, one meat sandwich, and a different treat are passed out. In between those times volunteers are participating in various efforts like cleaning, doling out soup, making sandwiches, organizing donations, and cutting potatoes.

yup, I got the taters

yup, I got the taters

Of course when Martin saw me he deemed me a good fit for the taters. I was tasked to dice them to put into soup for the next day. Although he was impressed with my skills I was joined by another volunteer, Alex, who is a junior at the University of Memphis. He has volunteered at St. Mary’s a few times and enjoys meeting everyone there. I quickly saw what he meant. After meeting Martin, I met a volunteer named Lynn. She is full of energy and has a ready smile. Lynn is a Monday/Thursday regular and is an east coast transplant like myself. Today there was also Brittany and Katie. Both lovely ladies that did a NUMBER on cleaning the kitchen. The health inspectors are due for a visit and even though the kitchen proudly boasted a 98 (better than many restaurants) from the last visit, these ladies made it their duty to make this kitchen shine.

Back to those potatoes; as Alex and I were chopping away, I heard some whistling and looked up to see Ron Bezon, kitchen manager at St. Mary’s. Now Ron has maybe one of the most heartbreaking yet uplifting stories I have come to hear. Not only is he willing to share that story with you but his positive outlook on life and ability to really see his work with a holistic view is amazing. And he’s got jokes! After 5 minutes of speaking with him I already decided that I would be coming back the next day so I could hear more about him and, hopefully, absorb some of his wisdom.

Lynn and Ron

Lynn and Ron

Post-potatoes, Alex and I were tasked at ladling soup in 16-oz cups. As we were doing so, Ron scooped himself some and deemed it “quality control.” I then asked him what happens if they don’t like it. He replied, “well, its a money back guarantee, if you don’t like your soup, you can come back tomorrow and get another free cup.” Brilliant, just brilliant.

After we had finished with our soup it was time to start handing out the goods. Now I had worked at the Community Soup Kitchen at my college and loved it. We had regulars that knew me and I knew the system. Here was something different but still filled with the same kind of love. Although I was nervous there really wasn’t anything to be nervous about (except after I dropped a cup of soup -_-).

soup on soup on soup. literally.

soup on soup on soup. literally.

Everything was gravy. The volunteer crew worked well together, filling in for people when they needed to move on to a new task. Every visitor is greeted with a smile and loud “Good Morning,” per St. Mary’s tradition, because it maybe the only good morning they hear. Although it was a little chilly, we still saw a good crew and I talked with a few people that were on their way to try and get a job today.

Not to sound too sentimental but my heart was just overflowing this morning. I have a new found appreciation for what a warm cup of coffee or what a smile can do for someone. It can literally turn a day around. The power of food can never be underestimated and, in my opinion, is the universal language. Everybody gets hungry and every body needs nourishment. At St. Mary’s they aren’t only providing nourishment of the body but of the mind as well. Every person is more than willing to chat about whatever crosses your mind, offer wishes of well being and is absolutely genuine in their sentiment.

Monday Morning Team

Monday Morning Team (yes, a self-timer selfie)

I can’t wait to go back tomorrow – my alarm is already set. I think today was a great way to kick-off the Volunteer Odyssey Safari.

I’ll keep you posted !

Love,

Ari

Thank you for reading! I’m searching for a job in community outreach or partnerships position at a non-profit organization. If you know of a great fit, please send it our way: jobleads@volunteerodyssey.com.
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Birds of Paradise

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My day at St. Mary’s Catholic Church Soup Kitchen started early. The rain and my post-biking body aches made it difficult to get out of bed, but my “struggles” were really put into perspective for me once I got downtown and started preparing food for homeless Memphians.

St. Mary’s has been serving the poor and homeless communities of Memphis for 143 years, They host three separate meals: fruit or oatmeal at 6:30, coffee and pastries at 7:30, and then a larger meal including soup, a meat sandwich, a PB&J sandwich, and a granola bar or bag of chips. The Soup Kitchen partners with many community groups to make this happen. Many local schools and religious groups donate sandwiches, while Starbucks generously donates all of the coffee and pastries handed out each morning. The kitchen is open 6 days and week, and feeds about 100 people per day.

Dicing up some yummy cuts of chicken at the St. Mary's Soup Kitchen!

Dicing up some yummy cuts of chicken at the St. Mary’s Soup Kitchen!

I was able to help serve the main meal of the day. I started chopping cuts of beef and chicken into bite sized pieces for the soup. I was joined by Chip and Loretta, who are veteran choppers and would have sunk me in any cooking competition. They both come early in the mornings before work to help prepare the meals. What a great way to start one’s day!

While I worked I also got to meet Martin, who is the new Director of Homeless Ministries at St. Mary’s. He was explaining how he got his start at St. Mary’s through volunteering in the soup kitchen, which eventually turned into a full-time position. His story inspired me to stick with my passion in the hopes that one day it can become my career!

 PBJ, meat sandwiches, and chips just waiting to be handed out at St. Mary's Soup Kitchen!


PBJ, meat sandwiches, and chips just waiting to be handed out at St. Mary’s Soup Kitchen!

I was able to interact with all of the people in line for a bite to eat. Once people made it through the food line, they were invited to sit at one of two long tables available and enjoy their meal. The fellowship I witnessed was incredibly heartwarming. Friends in a dry place socializing with something warm to eat.  One man brought a shopping cart full of equipment. It blew over in the wind, but another man got up from his meal to help the man collect his belongings and right his cart. I was moved by this small kindness.

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Drawing done by one client of the St. Mary’s Soup Kitchen, featuring birds of paradise because being in St. Mary’s is like paradise for him.

The St. Mary’s Soup Kitchen helped me to “check my privilege,” so to speak, and remind me of all that I have. While everyone else was preparing for Halloween spooks and scares, I saw a real fear that people must overcome each day: the fear of not knowing where your next meal is coming from. But I also met a counter to that fear. Loving people who work to replace these fears with hope.

 

Thank you for reading! I’m searching for a community outreach or partnerships position at a non-profit organization in Memphis. If you know of a great fit, please send it our way: jobleads@volunteerodyssey.com or dsvgdik@gmail.com.
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Week 12, Day 1: Michael Garcia at St. Mary’s Catholic Church Soup Kitchen

Michael Garcia serving soup at St. Mary's Soup Kitchen.

I wasn’t sure what to expect this morning when I pulled into the parking lot of St. Mary’s Catholic Church on the corner of 2nd and Market to volunteer in the soup kitchen. At 7 o’clock on a Monday morning, there wasn’t much traffic on the road and not many people about. I was greeted at the door of St. Mary’s by Martin, who was to be my supervisor for the volunteer experience at the soup kitchen, and he immediately put me to work.

First, I was given some cabbages and potatoes to chop. Then at 7:30, we began serving pastries with a cup of Starbucks coffee. While I was serving pastries to the poor and homeless, Martin said something to me that really resonated and helped me comprehend the importance of the soup kitchen. I had only handed out a couple of pastries by that time, and he came up to me and simply told me to smile and greet the people in line with a friendly “good morning”, because they were unlikely to have anyone else smile and greet them for the rest of the day. I was already aware on some level that most people, myself included, often simply ignore the poor and homeless when they encounter them on the streets. Martin’s simple instruction provided me with their perspective on such encounters, and I had a small glimpse of what it might be like to be poor and homeless. It made me more aware of the privileges I have. I am currently between jobs and if I did not have the excellent network of family and friends that is currently supporting me, I might be in the line at the soup kitchen myself. Thus, I am not only grateful to my family and friends, I am grateful to be able to give back in whatever small way I am able. With this insight, I then greeted everyone else in line with a sincere smile and a cheerful “Good morning!”

After serving coffee and donuts, it was back to chopping cabbages and potatoes for soup. I had some help from another volunteer, Lauren Squires, who you might recognize from Action News 5. Lauren and I were then tasked with stirring the large pots of soup while they cooked, to make sure the soup didn’t stick to the bottom. Once the soup was bubbling, we ladled it into Styrofoam cups to be served. Although I doubted the wisdom of the technique, we stacked the cups of soup several levels high with serving trays between each level. I am often prone to clumsiness, but I am proud to say that I did not spill a drop of soup. As menial as it might sound, I really enjoyed this task because I enjoy cooking and I am no stranger to the kitchen. The soup also smelled delicious. I burned my fingers slightly when pouring the soup into the cups, but that did not bother me because I’ve done worse to myself making roux for gumbo.

Michael Garcia keeps the soup from sticking at St. Mary's Soup Kitchen.

Michael Garcia keeps the soup from sticking at St. Mary’s Soup Kitchen.

When I was done pouring soup into cups, I spent some time placing pastries into plastic sandwich bags to make it easier to distribute them. At first, it was difficult to resist the temptation to lick the sugary icing off my fingers, but I quickly realized that it wouldn’t be practical to have to wash my hands between placing each pastry into a bag.

At 9 o’clock we began serving the cups of soup along with tuna or peanut butter sandwiches and fruit candy. The food seemed hearty and appealing. All the volunteers took turns serving. When I was not serving, I chatted with the other volunteers, getting to know them a little bit. It was a diverse group, including Brittany and Nate, a young married couple; Jake, a student at Christian Brothers High School; and Lynn, whose son has autism and really enjoys sports. Lynn said her son plans on participating in St. Mary’s 5th Annual Steeplechase 5k run in September and would love to be on tv after finishing the race. This was my first time at the soup kitchen but the others had been volunteering there for anywhere from a couple of months to many years. They all seemed to really enjoy it and I could understand why. It gave me a good feeling about myself and the community to see others eager and willing to help those that need it.

Michael Garcia serving soup at St. Mary's Soup Kitchen.

Michael Garcia serving soup at St. Mary’s Soup Kitchen.

Michael Garcia serving soup at St. Mary's Soup Kitchen.

Michael Garcia serving soup at St. Mary’s Soup Kitchen.

The soup kitchen is open every morning Monday to Saturday, and most days they serve 300 or more people. We served a total of around 50 people this morning. I was told that it was less busy than normal today because there was another soup kitchen in a nearby park that doesn’t run daily. There was never a long line of people waiting for food, but we served people until 10 o’clock. Everyone did their part to help clean up, picking up empty cups and trash, washing dishes, sweeping up and mopping down the kitchen. As I left, it was great feeling knowing I had done something worthwhile with my day when it was only 10 o’clock in the morning.

Thank you for reading! I’m searching for a job as an historical consultant, researcher or educator. If you know of a great fit, please send it our way: jobleads@volunteerodyssey.com.

Cheers,

Michael

My profile pages:
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Academia.edu

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Week 10, Day 1: Rae-Anne Pitts at St. Mary’s Soup Kitchen

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I was very anxious to begin my Volunteer Odyssey journey. I was especially nervous about working at St. Mary’s Catholic Church Soup Kitchen. I had never interacted with the homeless before, and I was not sure what to expect. I arrived at St. Mary’s bright and early on a clear sunny day, at 7:15. I am not a morning person and did not have time to make coffee so this felt extra early for me. Martin and Ron run the soup kitchen. They and the other volunteers greeted me warmly. Ron showed me around the kitchen and pantry and explained how everything runs, following their brief introduction; they put me to work preparing breakfast. We packaged pastries into individual sandwich bags to be passed out.

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Breakfast began around 7:30, with ladies going first. Each person attending received a cup of coffee and a choice of two pastries. With each pastry the other volunteers and I said good morning, made eye contact, and gave them a warm smile. This is simple gesture of compassion that they may not receive every day. Oftentimes people avoid eye contact with homeless people.  As a society we often grown up avoiding it either because we don’t know how to interact or we are afraid. The smiles I received in return made me realize how much this small gesture can mean.

After breakfast had been distributed we immediately began preparations to serve lunch. Volunteers begin making soup from scratch at 5:30 am.  It can include all kinds of meat such as ground beef, chicken, or ham and vegetables, depending on what is available at the time. Today’s soup was vegetable beef soup with noodles. The smell reminded me of my favorite meal in elementary school. A sweet volunteer named Kathy and I worked together to ladle the soup into 16-ounce portions in Styrofoam cups. We ladled so much soup, probably about 120 portions. I am proud to say, I managed to only burn my fingers a couple of times.

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The second serving began at 9 am and ran until 10 am. This meal included a bologna sandwich, a peanut butter sandwich, soup, and a treat. The treat on the day I volunteered was a donut, but it varies from day-to-day. I was in the “hot seat” for this serving; this means I was responsible for handing out the sandwiches, treat, and cup of soup. The sandwiches are wrapped up so that they may take them with them for later which many did. Everyone that came through the line was very nice; some were quiet, while others were very talkative. One man even sang a song to those of us passing out food, that he had written about Jesus. After lunch service, all that was left was to clean the kitchen. We washed the dishes, swept and mopped the floors, wiped the counter, and put away any leftovers for the next day.

The soup kitchen of, St. Mary’s Catholic Church, has been operating for 143 years. On average they serve 80-100 at breakfast and 120-200 at lunch. Amazing! They are able to make a real impact on people who have little where else to turn.  It is an impressive thing that the volunteers do, six days a week, and I was fortunate to be part of it for a day.

Thank you for reading! I’m searching for a job in public policy, non-profit administration, or social science research. If you know of a great fit, please send it our way: jobleads@volunteerodyssey.com or raeannepitts@gmail.com
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Week 1, Day 2: John Cook at St. Mary’s Catholic Church Soup Kitchen

For over 100 years, St. Mary’s Catholic Church has been operating a soup kitchen to feed the poor and hungry.  Today, I got a chance to be a part of the legendary operation:

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St. Mary’s Cathedral

First and foremost, I would like to explain that I have volunteered places in the past and many times felt like I was in the way – “too many cooks in the kitchen” type scenarios.  But not today!  Mr. Ron, the volunteer director, greeted me at the door, introduced himself, and immediately put me to work.  THAT is exactly what I wanted. No beating around the bush, no standing around wondering what I should be doing—BOOM: Sandwich makin’ time!  And if there’s one thing I know, it’s sandwiches.  I enjoyed sitting at the table, listening to the other volunteers tell me a little about themselves, and secretly trying to compete with them as to who (to whom?) can make the most sandwiches.  I had to bite my tongue to keep from asking “What number are you on?”.  I didn’t want to come off as that crazy so soon.

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My perfectly made sandwich

After the sandwich making competition, I was asked to hand out pastries as the patrons lined up for coffee.  I didn’t have much interaction with them, just a smile and a “good mornin’!”  My next task was to ladle piping hot soup into approximately 200 cups.  Thanks to the assistance and steady hands of my good friend Sarah, we managed to stack 5 trays of soup cups on top of each other without spilling a drop.  The other volunteers and I then worked in assembly line fashion to give each patron a hefty cup of soup, 2 sandwiches, and a dessert. It took about an hour for everyone to shuffle through, eat, and leave.

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Ladlin’ like a BOSS

It wasn’t until I got home and walked through my front door that I suddenly gained some perspective about my experience. I have a roof over my head, food in my fridge, and a warm bed to sleep in at night. It’s difficult to complain about anything going on in my life after helping out at St. Mary’s, serving those in need.  My experience reminded me that nothing should be taken for granted and no matter how hard things might seem from time to time, there are plenty of people that would love to be in my shoes.

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Handin’ out food

 

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