Throughout the month of December, Evening Sun staff members will be visiting various charitable and non-profit agencies in Chenango County to offer a helping hand to “Deliver Christmas.”
I arrived at St. Paul’s Parish Hall in Oxford to volunteer for the Taste n’ See Soup Kitchen half an hour before dinner was served, yet when I stepped through the back door the warm aroma of a good-will dinner had already filled the area, with people hustling from the kitchen and a dozens of excited conversations echoing from the hall.
There were about 20 volunteers at the kitchen this past Monday, 11 of them are students from Oxford Academy. Nine were eighth graders who elected to participate in an optional social studies program that involved community volunteering. Two others attended just because they wanted to.
One of the first people to greet me was 10th grader Logan Nuzzolese, who like me was experiencing her first night at this particular soup kitchen. She decided to volunteer after her grandma told her “how cool it was.”
“I just like being with other people. I just come and help out. I think it’s a nice thing to do for others. A lot of people smile at you and enjoy just having people to talk with, plus the food is free,” she explained.
Standing beside Logan was her friend, Oxford senior Charlene Beckwith. Charlene has been coming to the soup kitchen for the last five years, since she was in seventh grade. “It’s more useful and important than spending my time watching TV,” she responded after being asked why she wouldn’t rather be home.
“My mom helped here, so I just started to do it too. I just like people and I like helping people,” she said. Her mother, Darlene, also a five-year soup kitchen veteran, said the family lives just down the street.
Darlene said she became involved in the program after being pulled into a number of volunteer activities while her daughter was a girl scout years ago. Her motivations echoed her daughter’s. “I just enjoy helping,” she said.
The Taste n’ See Soup Kitchen serves meals at 5:30 p.m. every Monday at St. Paul’s Parish Hall along Main Street.
The program’s director, Charlie McMullen, said the dinner started in November of 1999 as a Make A Difference Day project, a USA Weekend event that is held every fourth Saturday in October.
Today the program receives funding from the Roger Follett Foundation, Chenango United Way, Kerry America, Emergency Food and Shelter Program, and the Food Bank of CNY.
McMullen explained he originally organized the dinner to be a one time event. He said he received support from a number of community members and found the experience very rewarding.
“In the beginning we made a lot of sandwiches and had lots of soup, but the program has grown so much since then that we’re able to offer a wide range of things now,” he said.
“My reason for volunteering is because on May 7, 2000, I received a life saving liver transplant. A stranger gave me the gift of life, a second chance. So the transplant experience enlightened me to want to help others,” he said.
Though dinner is served at the Parish Hall at 5:30, preparations to accommodate the typical 80 people who take part in the program begin at about 8 a.m. Monday when volunteers begin cooking and preparing the meal for about three hours.
One of those early morning volunteers is Evening Sun Sports Editor Patrick Newell. For Pat, volunteering at the soup kitchen has been a weekly tradition for seven years.
Darlene also told me she had come to the hall Sunday night to make Monday evening’s dessert, Jell-O.
As many of the 8th grade students served drinks in the dining hall, the adults hovered around the kitchen finishing preparations. At nearly exactly 5:30 p.m., the plates were being filled and not a single volunteer stood idle for the next 30 minutes. A constant conveyor belt of servers moved to and fro, holding plates as other volunteers filled them with the night’s main course, hamburger and gravy with biscuits, peas, apple sauce followed by Jell-O fruit cups and whipped cream.
Charlie says serving is a clockwork-timed routine. “We serve at 5:30 and we’re almost always finished by 6,” he said.
During this time I joined in and handed out a few plates. As the volunteers began running low on people to serve, I switched roles from waiter to dish washer.
I joined experienced dishwashing volunteer Retha Tompkins, who has been with the program since it began. Like a few others in the group, Retha said she always assumes the same task after dinner, rinsing the plates. Washing at my somewhat amateur pace, all I could do was try and keep up. A few times she reached over my sink and stole a lingering pan or plate as she hurried her way through several dishes. As the dirty dishes diminished and the clean ones piled up, I again changed roles to drying, then putting things away. Honestly with everyone working so quickly and being so accustomed to the process, the clean up took less time than eating the meals did.
I enjoyed my experience at the kitchen very much and was impressed that my questioning as to why someone would volunteer left many at the hall baffled. Many retorted, “Why wouldn’t you?” A question that in turn left me struggling for an answer.
For more information about volunteering or contributing to the Taste n’ See Soup Kitchen, contact Charlie McMullen at 843-7215.