For 10 years, volunteers at Our Daily Bread have fed the hungry--and themselves

June 02, 1991|By Eileen Canzian

Joe Coakley thought he was dropping off some corned beef casseroles that women in his church had made for the new soup kitchen downtown. But before he knew it, a nun was slipping an apron over his head and telling him how nice he was to have volunteered.

Ten years later, Mr. Coakley is still working the ovens at Ou Daily Bread while his wife, Anne, ladles the corned beef mixture onto plates. They were at the soup kitchen yesterday as it marked its 10th anniversary, a bittersweet occasion.

The program's staff and volunteers are proud of its decade o service in feeding the poor. And they are saddened that there are still so many people who need the help -- and sometimes, more help than a soup kitchen can provide.

"I remember noticing one day that I hadn't seen one elderl woman who always came, and someone said, 'Didn't you hear? She was found dead in a doorway,' " Mrs. Coakley recalled. After 10 years, she said, she still isn't prepared when she turns to greet someone and finds a face dazed by drugs or mental illness.

"But then someone will come over to tell you, 'That tasted jus like my mother's,' and it really gives you a lift," Mrs. Coakley continued. Her husband calls the work a way of giving something back for the many blessings in his own life.

The soup kitchen, which opened its doors in the first block of West Franklin Street on June 1, 1981, was developed as a response to the growing number of homeless men who were going to the nearby Catholic Basilica asking for something to eat. Rectory workers would make

them sandwiches, but officials at Associated Catholic Charities decided it would be nicer to offer them a hot meal and a place to sit down.

Mr. Coakley, a retired Social Security Administration employee, and Mrs. Coakley, a retired school teacher, were among 20 parishioners at St. Mary's Church in Govans who agreed to provide enough food to serve the expected 100 diners. But within weeks, more than twice that many people were turning to the soup kitchen every day.

By the summer of 1989, the program that had been envisione as a temporary response to economic hard times was moving up the street into its current quarters at 200 West Franklin -- a move necessary to allow construction of a larger, $1 million building at the original site, which is expected to be completed this fall.

Some 600 people now eat at Our Daily Bread each day.

A virtual bureaucracy of volunteers has developed to provid those meals. The Rev. Thomas Bonderenko, who oversees the operation, said roughly 6,000 people now volunteer at the program regularly. The soup kitchen employs a full-time staff of 10, including one worker whose sole job is to coordinate the efforts of the 140 churches, synagogues, community groups and corporations that supply the meals.

Seven days a week, they are providing food to a diverse group o supplicants that includes the chronically homeless, the elderly poor, low-income families with children, and working-class men who accept a free lunch at Our Daily Bread in an attempt to stretch their family budgets.

Virginia Rugemer, another of the original volunteers from St Mary's, said the people who help to feed them enjoy a reward that is far more fulfilling than "just writing a check." She added quickly, however, that she would feel even more satisfied if the soup kitchen were no longer needed and could shut down.

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