A Reluctant Chef Warms To Task Of Feeding Others

Bertoni Doesn't Like To Cook, But She'll Do It For The Needy

August 28, 2009|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

Two state-of-the-art kitchens at her home rarely lure her to the stove, but Donna Bertoni will cook all day in a modest church kitchen for a few dozen needy people.

The Dundalk businesswoman, who prefers dining out to cooking in, began a Monday soup kitchen at Merritt Park Baptist Church nearly a year ago and now makes dinner for about 60.

"I would eat out every night, if I could," she said. "I don't like to cook."

Unless she is preparing a meal for those who might otherwise go hungry. Dinner out for these neighbors means a free homemade meal amid church pews, with seconds on request and carryout.

Bertoni, 38, spends Mondays in a truly basic kitchen at the church, just across Merritt Boulevard from her real estate office. She arrives early to bake casseroles, put together a spaghetti dinner or simmer a commercial-size pot of soup. Here she prefers to do all the cooking, while volunteers, including her husband, help with serving. About 15 guests, most of them homeless, came to the first meal last October at the Donahue Soup Kitchen, named for the family who started the church's food pantry. She usually serves about 60 now.

"I see some new faces every week and a lot of the same," she said. "About a third are homeless, but most are just trying to make ends meet. I know several are living without utilities. A lot drive a car and work but are in terrible financial situations."

Bertoni's gentle manner sets the tone for the evening meal.

"This may not be as plush as a restaurant, but I will wait on them just like in a restaurant," she said.

Her policy is no foul language or drinking and nobody leaves without something. Along with comfort food, she offers a break from the weather, clean restrooms and help without questions.

"In summer, they come early to get out of the heat," she said, carrying a trayful of ice cream sandwiches to tables set up among the church pews. "In winter, they stay late to keep warm."

While her guests linger, she has shown movies, assisted with job searches and applications, and encouraged them to "shop" at the church's clothing closet.

"This really helps out," John Bonnell said as he selected an ice cream treat. "We are treated like guests. I have gotten a lot of others to come here."

Jim Fischer said the church is not only a good place to eat, but a great place to be with his friends.

A lifelong Dundalk resident, Bertoni often runs into her guests throughout the week. She knows one is living in his car and a few others have set up tents in a park.

"The need is so out there," she said. "I see the same people sitting on the same benches every day. I can't change the world, but I can do something right here."

She used her own funds to buy food at first, but now has found many donors willing to pick up the weekly $75 tab.

"I have been very lucky in business, and I have more than I need," she said. "I am doing more than OK, and I wanted a way to give back to my community."

After her "day off" at the soup kitchen, she returns home tired but content. "I know," she said, "that I have fed 60 people."

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