ST. ALBANS CITY — At Martha’s Kitchen, everybody is welcomed to the table.
Men and women dotted the soup kitchen’s dining room near closing time Monday, chatting as they finished their beef and vegetable soup, sandwiches and chips. Volunteers cooked, mopped the floor, made more sandwiches and snack bags for people, and talked with those they served.
Bob Begley, Martha’s Kitchen’s new director, oversaw it all. Begley, who is a secular Franciscan monk who previously acted as the Community Justice Center Reentry Program coordinator, was hired by the organization’s eight-person board and began working at the kitchen about a month ago. His new position opened as former kitchen manager Mary Gibson retired.
“Mary gave 18 strong years,” said Begley.
With new management, the soup kitchen is undergoing some changes. In Begley’s explanation, these are three-fold: making Martha’s Kitchen effective and efficient at what it’s main mission of feeding people; acknowledging current food donors and attracting more community partner;, and nourishing people who come in to eat not only with food but with conversation, interaction and comfort.
“I want people to be happy, feel engaged,” said Begley.
More hours, more food
Transition is not easy. “People find change difficult,” said Begley. However, Begley said the response to shifts at Martha’s Kitchen have mostly been positive.
In order to serve patrons at Martha’s Kitchen most effectively, Begley said he and his new kitchen partner, St. Albans City resident Kathy Cromack, have been working on taking away distracting items, such as clothing drives or toy drives, and redirecting those to the appropriate community partners like the Salvation Army.
“That was a difficult transition for people here,” Begley said. But, he added, focusing on food allows Martha’s Kitchen to do its job better, such as allowing the kitchen to be open for longer or more frequently.
“Our goal is to open up seven days a week,” said Begley. For now, the kitchen has extended its hours from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.; previously it closed at 11:15 a.m.
That’s more time to serve everyone properly. On Monday, the kitchen served 83 meals total, a number that grows on colder days and during the summer when children are out of school.
It’s also more social opportunity for those who live alone. For someone like Chris, a 59-year-old St. Albans resident who declined to give his last name, those extra days are valuable.
“I come here for the company,” he said. A veteran, he is currently without a job and lives alone – he expects he’s going to lose his electricity and heat soon since he’s having a hard time finding work. Coming to Martha’s kitchen for food, he said, is the highlight of the day.
“Weekends are the hardest,” said Chris. “My biggest fear is being alone.”
Chris also mentioned that in recent weeks, Martha’s Kitchen has been serving more food. That’s because Begley and Cromack are working more deliberately with donors from 14 local churches, Tatro’s Gourmet Soup and Sandwich shop and the St. Albans Rotary to decide on what exactly is needed so that food is not wasted.
“Times are getting tight – a lot of people are making sacrifices,” Begley said.
Due to those sacrifices, Begley has put up a white board in the dining room to list the day’s menu and to thank the food donor of the week. On Monday, it was Holy Angels Church.
He also put up a gratitude board for anyone to write on.
“People don’t realize there’s been sacrifices,” said Begley. He said it would be wonderful if other community organizations started choosing a week to donate. Not only would it ease the pressure on local churches, Begley said, but it would allow the kitchen to grow with a larger community support.
Nourishing the hungry
Cultivating community, said Begley, is something he and Cromack are looking to do both outside and inside Martha’s Kitchen.
Instead of being just a soup kitchen, Cromack said they’re aiming to be more like a café and a place to be nourished.
“A lot of people have a poor perception of Martha’s and what’s going on here,” said Cromack. “We’re trying to change that perception. It’s people like you and I and something happened.”
To start with, the kitchen is cracking down on drug use – it’s not allowed inside in any form, and smoking out front is also prohibited. “Seeing how we can collaborate so people feel safe here – that’s very important,” said Begley.
While it’s not always an easy task, Begley said it’s a necessary one to keep the kitchen viable. “We’re not going to tolerate that,” he said.
On the other side of things, Begley said that he is encouraging a sense of presence in Martha’s Kitchen – that is, working with people to give them not only food but social interaction and support.
“We have to remember we’re not just here to feed the hungry,” he said. “We’re dealing with poverty.”
Begley often has volunteers – on Monday, a volunteer of five years Cathy Cross was there with two others, Brendan Trudeau and Lauren Larose. When volunteers come in, they aren’t just stuck in the back doing dishes.
“We don’t want that separation,” said Begley. Volunteers do wash dishes, but they also sweep the sidewalk outside along the block, serve people food, and eat with them.
“All of them [are] equally as important,” he said.
Begley added that he’d like to have one or two volunteers a day that just come in a have a cup of coffee with patrons. “People are lonely,” he said.
Going back to roots
Changes in Martha’s Kitchen are due to Begley and his mission to bring the organization back to its roots when it opened almost 31 years ago. He recently discovered, for instance, that Martha’s Kitchen was originally named after a biblical figure in the Book of Luke who welcomed Jesus into her home and prepared Him a meal while her sister, Mary, listened to his teachings.
“It’s so fitting, so simple,” said Begley. “Community, come on in.”