A hunger to serve

Our Daily Bread's volunteers feed the needy -- and their own resolve

November 21, 2007|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun reporter

One in a series of occasional features highlighting people and organizations in the Baltimore area who exemplify the "Spirit of Sharing," The Sun's annual holiday campaign. It's not just lunch.

And it still moves the older volunteers to see men and women say grace over their free meal at Our Daily Bread, the downtown soup kitchen run by Catholic Charities. Pat Marani of Parkville has been volunteering here for maybe 17 years - she isn't sure exactly - but it never fails, every day she and her band of volunteers see people giving thanks over warm baked chicken or tuna casserole.

"We almost don't know why we come here. We've been coming here so long," Marani says. Over the years, she occasionally has wondered whether the effort is worth it. But it took a young volunteer last year to remind the veteran volunteer why she still dons her green apron and dishes out food to the homeless.

"Because it's the right thing to do," Marani says.

Tomorrow is the first Thanksgiving at Our Daily Bread's new $15 million center. The staff plans a special meal of ham, pasta salad, string beans and, as always, dessert. And, as always, a crew of volunteers will be here to serve an expected 400 Thanksgiving meals. Given the other free meals offered in the area, it'll be a smaller crowd than is typically fed the other 364 days of the year.

Some of the hungry are still finding their way to the center, which moved in June to its new home at 725 Fallsway, less than a mile east of its former site on Cathedral Street. It has a fancier name now, too. Our Daily Bread Employment Center has been pushing its new job services, while it faces the same challenges. People are jobless and homeless. They have substance-abuse or mental health problems. They are hungry.

Kindness on the menu

But another constant has been the volunteers. Main lunch courses and the main address might change, but the spirit of Our Daily Bread hasn't changed in 26 years.

"They always have a kind word for you here," says Woody Carr, 38, who works in demolition and home improvement when he can find work. He hasn't lately. One day last week, Carr waited in line for lunch outside the center's train station-like exterior.

Inside, volunteers set out place mats, poured hot tea and packed breadbaskets. New volunteers stood nervously; they don't want to mess up. The veterans take them under their wing.

"Battle stations," says Don Dailey, 73, of Woodlawn, a volunteer dish washer.

At 10:30 a.m., the doors were unlocked, and the first 78 guests were seated. Everyone else is given a meal ticket - a token exchange to add a sense of dignity to the experience. The ticket plan has been around since Our Daily Bread opened in 1981, when Sister Josanna directed a hot meal program.

The midday meal remains a portrait of precision, consistency and manners. Volunteers address guests as "sir" or "ma'am." Volunteers wear green aprons, which they pack with napkins, paper bags and sandwich bags for guests to take food with them. Of the 650 men and women served daily, the staff estimates 20 percent are homeless. The others are the working poor. About 1,200 are considered year-round regulars.

A place to gather, gab

The dining room smells like baked chicken. "Would you like some bread?" is a common refrain. (Guests can choose up to seven pieces.) Many eat in silence and finish quickly.

Others stay awhile and talk sports. What's a meal without complaining about the Ravens? People might be out of money, prospects and luck, but ripping the home football team knows no economic bounds. The volunteers often join in the roundtable sports talk.

Mainly, though, they talk with each other. Some have been serving together, apron-to-apron, for as long as 20 years. Retirement brought some here, the need to feel useful. Tragedy led others here, the eternal need to be with others.

Since there's a vegetarian alternative every day, Bernie and Eleanor Farace brought the seven pounds of veggie casserole. They have been volunteering for 15 years - ever since they lost their son at the age of 44 and, two years later, their 53-year-old daughter. The couple looked for a grieving group. They came to Our Daily Bread instead.

"Bernie played the music at my wedding 46 years ago," Marani says. Neither one can remember what he played.

"Something on the guitar,' says Bernie Farace, busy righting wobbly pumpkin pie slices on the dessert tray.

Bill O'Hagan of Scaggsville swoops up five plates to run to his server on the floor. O'Hagan likes good plate presentation, so his pal Sue Walker in the kitchen turns each chicken piece on its most attractive side. They make quite the team. "Bill has been trying to fix me up with someone," she says. Walker's husband, Bob, passed away four years ago - she's been volunteering ever since.

O'Hagan can't remember exactly when he started here or why.

"My standard answer is, `Less time in purgatory,'" he says. After running five well-presented plates, he returns with a better answer.

"I just like helping people," he says.

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