Belfast Soup Kitchen focuses on self worth, dignity

By Hannah Holden | Jun 28, 2015
Photo by: Hannah Holden Belfast Soup Kitchen has a welcoming ambiance.

Light green walls lined with framed paintings surround the round tables, each with a colorful tablecloth and small vase of silk flowers. A staff member’s iPhone sits in a corner attached to portable speakers playing soft, café-style music. But this is no coffee shop.

This is the Belfast Soup Kitchen. This is a community. This is a volunteer stronghold that serves a hot meal Monday to Friday at 11:30 a.m. to anyone who walks through the doors.

Its home is a can’t-miss structure with red and white strips painted on the metal exterior. The four-story building that used to be a shoe factory now contains the kitchen, a second-hand shop, social workers’ offices and a yoga studio.

At the Belfast Soup Kitchen, patrons are referred to as guests. A nurse comes in twice a month to read their blood pressure. Literacy volunteers are on call to help with job applications.

For the past 30 years, this kitchen has focused on people’s self-worth and dignity instead of his or her wealth, status and place in society.

“I’ve been to a few out-of-state soup kitchens and none even come close to what we’re doing here,” said Allen Yeaton, a volunteer who is also on the board of directors for the kitchen. “Here, there are no bare walls. It’s a home-like and attractive place where people can enjoy themselves, socialize and always get a safe, nutritional meal.”

Every weekday at 10:30 a.m., guests can come to the Belfast Soup Kitchen to pick up a bag of unused food. Coffee and store-bought pastries are served until 11:30, and then it’s lunchtime.

“The food is excellent. It is out of this world. If I ate there every single day, I’d be as big as a house,” said Alex Allmayer-Beck, former chairman of the board.

Spaghetti with barbecue sauce, ham with baked beans, chicken cordon bleu, and beef stroganoff are just some of the popular meals made from favorite recipes of volunteers. Every meal is different, but one thing remains: a nutritional, home-cooked meal made with love.

And hope.

That is one of the words pasted on the wall at the entrance: “The mission of the Belfast Soup Kitchen is to provide a safe community where the guests can find food, comfort and hope for the future, in an atmosphere of dignity and respect.”

Food, comfort, hope, dignity and respect, all in capital letters.

“Helping others and instilling hope is what we’re here for,” said Mike, a kitchen volunteer. His colleague, Kathy, is the manager. Mike, Kathy and others at the soup kitchen ask that their last names not be used.

Kathy has worked at the kitchen for two years, first as a volunteer, then manager. She controls the inventory and directs the volunteers. Most importantly, Kathy makes sure the guests are well-fed and in a happy environment for up to three hours a day.

“You name it, we do it,” Kathy said. “We’re counselors, food providers and friends.”

At the start, the kitchen was feeding around 30 people a day. Now it’s up to 75 people on any given day.

“We serve a lot of regulars,” Allmayer-Beck said. “The people that we primarily serve are your underemployed. A lot of them are working but they’re not working for livable wage. And then we have a lot of unemployed, public assistance, several who are homeless but they’re a good bunch of people. I think the world of them.”

Food is donated from Hannaford and Good Shepherd Food Bank. Private individuals also donate canned goods. Commodities from the government come to the kitchen every three months. Once the food is stored in the kitchen, the volunteers decide what to make for the day.

The kitchen has 20 volunteers. Every day four to five of them come to the kitchen to help bring in the food, clean or cook. One is even a retired professional chef who cooks for the guests on Wednesdays.

Any food that is left over goes home with the guests for other meals.

Lora, the assistant manager, greets guests with a warm smile as they come in, welcoming presence and abundant use of the word “honey.”

Lora has been involved with the kitchen for five years. Monday through Friday she gets up every morning at 5:40 to come into the kitchen, prepare and pack the food, make the coffee, fill the milk containers and then tally how many guests come in during the day.

She now does for the kitchen what it did for her.

“Five years ago, I moved to Belfast, went over to Goodwill and they helped me find a job,” Lora said. “They brought me to the [soup] kitchen and I’ve been here ever since. I love it.”

One volunteer who works every Wednesday feels the same connection as Lora does to the kitchen. Cindi is there when guests pick out their food, buffet-style. She makes eye contact and interacts with everyone, a huge smile on her face.

“I love people,” she said. She has been volunteering at the kitchen since September and enjoys talking to the guests.

Even though many of the volunteers have gotten to know the guests well, the kitchen writes no names down in a notebook. The guests are entitled to their privacy.

Ginnie Fanelli, Belfast’s public health nurse, comes to the kitchen every first and third Wednesday of the month. In her wellness clinics, she takes blood pressure, checks cholesterol and administers flu shots.

“When people come to me and know that I’m here for them and recognize me, it is so rewarding because it takes time to trust,” Fanelli said.

But Fanelli is more than a nurse for the guests. She is also a listener. She sits in her corner of the dining room and guests come by for a chat, picking up where they left off two weeks ago. After a year at the kitchen, Fanelli knows all the guests by name and listens to each of their stories.

“When I come in here, I see different faces and the same faces,” Fanelli said. “All walks of life.”

Yeaton also serves as a ray of light for the guests. One of the oldest volunteers, Yeaton has been involved with the kitchen for six years. He comes in three to four days a week and helps carry food, clean the floors and whatever else needs to be done. Like Fanelli, he knows the guests by name and enjoys socializing with them.

“A lot struggle to get by,” Yeaton said. “But everyone’s treated the same here, with respect. We maintain a clean and efficient operation where no one gets turned out. This is many people’s only hot meal during the day.”

Two of the guests who sit together every day have been coming to the kitchen for four years. They enjoy the atmosphere of the kitchen and the socialization that it brings.

“We’ve been coming here a long time,” one said.

“It gets me out of the house, which is good,” said the other.

The kitchen serves an average of 70 hot meals daily. The rush is usually between 11:30 a.m. and noon. The majority of the guests leave after their first plate, but a few remain, and a sad desperation creeps in.

The ones often left are not proud of where they are — some alone, homeless and substance-addicted. Despite the food the kitchen provides, as they go up to pack a container for supper, their faces are blank, their pace slow. They wholeheartedly thank the volunteers. But, there is a sense of grief as they walk out the door, knowing they have to wait until tomorrow to again enjoy the company of others without any judgment.

“If I could be young again, I would be a basketball coach," one guest said. "They make like $10 million a year. Nowadays, it just seems like the harder you work, the less money you make.”

Though Allmayer-Beck retired as CEO of the kitchen, he still comes in frequently to share a meal. Allmayer-Beck has even been credited with opening the kitchen on holidays just for the guests. He is a selfless, caring man who thinks of the needy before he thinks of himself.

As he walks around the kitchen, he laughs with the guests, revels over the good food, and lights up the room with caring.

“The hardest part,” Allmayer-Beck said, “is trying to talk to people who already have their preconceived notions of what a soup kitchen is. People believe the homeless are homeless because of some character flaw. There are some people who believe the poor don’t deserve to be helped, but in this country, I think we are our brother and sister’s keeper and we should help people.”

When the kitchen began, it was run entirely by volunteers. In 2008, Allmayer-Beck stepped up and became the first CEO. He put together a board of directors, applied for nonprofit status and reinvented the kitchen.

Support for the kitchen comes primarily from private donations. They get occasional grants from Bank of America, athenahealth and the city of Belfast.

“We feed a lot of people,” Allmayer-Beck said. “And you can’t think of an organization in Belfast that we’re not affiliated with.”

Twice a week, the kitchen sends food to the Game Loft, an after-school program in Belfast. It also has emergency nonperishable food set up to help people who come into town and have no food or shelter. They are placed in a local motel and the kitchen puts together a food basket that is hand-delivered to them.

Allmayer-Beck remembers one call for general assistance to help a woman who had come into town. The kitchen delivered a basket to her and discovered she was getting her protein from dog food. The woman was extremely grateful for the support the kitchen provided.

“A more accurate name would be the Belfast Community Kitchen,” Allmayer-Beck said.

At the door there is a donation box. The volunteers don’t check who gives but Allmayer-Beck always manages to give Lora a few dollars to put in the box.

“It is, after all, all about dignity," Allmayer-Beck said. "Just because a person’s poor doesn’t mean you need to treat them terribly. People have their dignity and there are a lot of reasons why people are poor. Most of it isn’t their fault.”

Hannah Holden is a resident of Belfast. She is a journalism major at University of Maine.

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