Husband, wife kept jobs, now they give to others Elkridge pair runs mobile soup kitchen

December 13, 1992|By Sherry Joe | Sherry Joe,Staff Writer

Tom and Beulah Burkhardt made a pledge late last year when it looked as if they both might lose their jobs with the Howard County government. If only they could hang on, they vowed, they would do everything they could to help the needy.

"When the recession started to hit, we were just as vulnerable as everybody else," said Tom Burkhardt, a parking meter repairman whose wife is an administrative aide.

When the county budget ax cost them only a five-day furlough, he said, "we looked around to see what we could do to help."

The Elkridge couple's promise has flowered and become the Serving Line. Through it, they have provided more than 13,300 free meals to needy people in just over a year. The Serving Line receives no public aid and succeeds solely on the generosity and efforts of a handful of volunteers.

Every Sunday morning the Burkhardts pack up donated food and clothing, plus tables and a grill, and head for Baltimore City Hall. Out front they cook hot dogs, give away leftover bread and baked goods from local grocers, and ladle up cups of hot chocolate and fruit punch for the needy.

The help of about 10 neighbors and friends bolsters the Burkhardts' commitment.

"We're just doing a small part. But we're making a small dent," said Tom Burkhardt.

Last Sunday about 200 men, women and children lined up for food and clothing. In cafeteria style, they stopped at one table for a plate of food, and got steaming cups of cocoa at another. As the Burkhardts and several volunteers served food, others unloaded bread and clothing from a truck.

Volunteer Paul Mitchell of Arbutus stood knee-deep in a pile of clothing. Poorly clad men and women hurriedly picked through plastic bags overflowing with scarves, sweaters, jackets and coats. Heaps of clothes vanished within minutes.

"This day was a light day," said Mr. Mitchell, who has seen crowds of 300 to 400 people.

Wanda Harris, who was collecting sweaters for her 6-year-old son, said many of the people who come to the Burkhardts are hungry, cold and desperate.

"Look at them," she said, sweeping her arms toward the long line.

Since the Serving Line began last year, the volunteers have come to know the poor and homeless who seek help from them.

Volunteer Leon Ware of Baltimore searched the crowd for an older woman, whose name he doesn't know, but who regularly visits the site. He is saving a heavy dress coat for her. When lunch ended an hour later and she still hadn't shown up, Leon stashed it away in a truck to give to her the following week.

"It's something positive," he said of his volunteering. "If I continue, maybe I can inspire other people to do the same."

Recipients said they regret their dependence on the Burkhardts but have no other choice.

"It's real desperate," said Anthony Thomas, who has been

homeless for

about six months. "It's a shame that we have to line up for handouts to get help like this."

Occasionally, the Burkhardts venture into Baltimore on chilly Saturday nights to give away warm clothing, blankets and hot drinks.

Bea Gaddy, the legendary East Baltimore woman who has fed and sheltered the poor since 1979, said there is always room for more volunteers.

"We couldn't overlap if we had 50 people giving away food," said Ms. Gaddy who fed more than 23,000 people on Thanksgiving. "People need help. There's plenty of room for everyone to give away food."

Patricia Parran, an administrative assistant at Project PLASE in Baltimore, also welcomed the Burkhardts' efforts.

"It's not the norm, but it sounds to me like a good thing," she said of the couple. Project PLASE, established in 1973, operates three shelters for 56 homeless men and women.

Throughout the week the Burkhardts and their volunteers collect the clothing and food from co-workers and family members.

London Fog recently gave the Burkhardts 100 coats and 500 coat liners. The Burkhardts plan to give away the coats the Sunday before Christmas.

Ms. Burkhardt figures she and her husband devote 15 to 20 hours a week to the Serving Line, including all day Saturday, when they shop for groceries, and about two hours each Sunday. As Christmas draws near, they spend even more time preparing and wrapping gifts for poor children.

On the Sunday before Christmas, Mr. Burkhardt plans to dress up as Santa Claus and pass out gifts to children in front of City Hall and at the Copper Stallion Inn in Elkridge.

Ms. Burkhardt said she has already wrapped more than 100 toys. So far, the couple have spent about $2,000 from their own pockets to keep the Serving Line going.

The Burkhardts predict that troubles for the needy will grow worse before improving. But they haven't lost hope.

"I can't stop now," said Mr. Burkhardt, who plans to continue the Serving Line indefinitely. "It just makes me feel good."

Donations can be sent to: The Serving Line, P.O. Box 334, Ellicott City 21043. For more information, call 796-2331.

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