Family proved there is a free lunch

July 31, 1995|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff Writer

It took quintuple bypass heart surgery to keep a suburban family of four from feeding Baltimore's poor.

Even so, the Franquellis of Severn leave behind a remarkable four-year legacy: 185,000 lunches served -- along with countless articles of clothing, gallons of baby formula and tons of assorted groceries. All were given free, no questions asked, to city homeless men, women and children.

Nearly every Sunday since April 1991 (patriarch Anthony Franquelli missed two Sundays when he was hospitalized for a kidney stone), the Franquellis have fed all comers from the back of their beat-up Ford van parked downtown.

What started as a family project -- a handful of bag lunches given away on the suggestion of their youngest child -- grew into a major event with as many as 1,000 people served at one time. Countless volunteers, neighbors and friends -- or just people who happened to hear about the family -- donated money, food and time.

Eventually, their work led to the creation of a nonprofit charity, "Simple Sacrifice For The Homeless," but the effort was always centered in the Franquelli garage, where hundreds of sandwiches were assembled each week.

Mr. Franquelli, a University of Maryland print-shop supervisor who is now 50 years old, his wife, Angela, 49, and children, Jilleien, 16, and Anthony, 14, surprised the social work professionals, and even themselves, by sticking with it -- until Mr. Franquelli's heart problems surfaced last month.

"We've had some good experiences," Mr. Franquelli said. "We learned that people are basically good and they want to help the less fortunate. They just need to know how to do it."

The last time the Franquellis fed the homeless was June 4 when they gave away 620 lunches on the street near City Hall. But for days afterward, Mr. Franquelli felt pain in his chest and had difficulty breathing. A trip to the emergency room revealed the arterial blockages, and lead to surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

"He wouldn't see a doctor until I had to take him to the emergency room," Mrs. Franquelli said. "He's real stubborn."

Only a family tendency toward stubbornness could explain their willingness to spend 15 to 20 hours each week picking up donated food, preparing lunches, and then making the pilgrimage downtown.

They said it was never a burden, that it brought the family closer together, and that the reward of seeing hungry people fed made the sacrifices worthwhile.

"There were probably days when I wasn't happy about it, but when I went downtown and saw those hundreds of people waiting for me, I realized I was worried about something stupid," Mr. Franquelli said.

Jilleien, who will be entering her senior year at Meade High School next month, said the experience educated her about the homeless. She has "set straight" teachers who suggested that homeless people never want jobs.

"It was fun," said her brother, Anthony, who will be entering his sophomore year at Meade High School.

Five years ago, Anthony insisted that his father hold his hand when they met people on the street. But that was long ago. Family members said they have never felt threatened or intimidated by the large crowds of homeless people they attracted.

Their shared memories include the street singer who spontaneously composed a rap song for them and the slightly intoxicated man who asked for lobster and wine. Some recipients have been more deserving than others, but anyone willing to seek and accept free food must need it, Mr. Franquelli reasoned.

"I've always had compassion for people, but they've given me a better understanding of how circumstances can make a difference and how people can fall into trouble," Mrs. Franquelli said.

Unfortunately, the Franquellis' decision to stop serving lunches coincides with a 60 percent reduction in state assistance to the disabled poor. The cut went into effect July 1. City soup kitchens are getting more customers than usual this summer, which is normally the leanest season of the year for donations.

"It was a wonderful thing to be doing," said Sue Fitzsimmons, spokeswoman for the Baltimore City Department of Social Services, "but people will manage as best they can."

The Franquellis have decided to maintain a food pantry in their garage, dispensing canned goods and other items to individuals and charities who show up at their door. Mrs. Franquelli said the decision to stop delivering Sunday meals was made easier by the presence of Beulah and Tom Burkhardt, an Elkridge couple who began serving weekly hot lunches at the same spot soon after they read about the Franquellis.

The Franquellis said they have already begun to miss their weekend routine, even Saturday mornings when one or more had to rise at 5:30 to make the rounds of grocery stores. They estimate that more than 700 volunteers helped them over the years, including neighbors, friends, colleagues and quite a few strangers.

"Sundays have gotten kind of boring," Jilleien said.

David S. Smith of Parkville, a volunteer who has worked with the Franquellis for more than two years, also misses their efforts. He joined them to teach his 6-year-old goddaughter about helping others.

"They are the greatest family I have ever met in my life," said Mr. Smith, 29, an insurance auditor. "Of course, I love my own family, but I have never met anyone like them. They will do anything to help people in need."

Neighbor Linda Goss said the sacrifices the Franquellis made each week were an inspiration to everyone around them. Her 16-year-old son, Mark, sometimes accompanied the family and still recalls the day the gift of a winter coat brought tears to a homeless man. "What they have done is amazing," Ms. Goss said. "The most important thing they did, more than food and clothing, was to tell these forgotten people that someone cares about them and they weren't forgotten."

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