Christmas dinner is last meal at Mount Vernon program for needy

Christmas marks the end for free weekly meal program

  • Caroleann Myers gets help from her husband Don as they prepare for the last meal on Christmas Day, when, in addition to a meal, "guests" will be given a pair of socks until supplies run out.
Caroleann Myers gets help from her husband Don as they prepare… (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
December 24, 2010|By Jessica Anderson, The Baltimore Sun

Turkey, homemade brownies and a piece of fresh fruit have been staples at Carpenter's Kitchen in Mount Vernon for nearly 25 years. They'll be on the menu one last time Saturday for Christmas dinner, the final meal for the weekly program that serves the city's needy.

The program is one of the few in Baltimore that offers free hot meals on Saturday nights when many soup kitchens are closed, and has seen its regulars increase to nearly 300 in tough economic times. But Carpenter's Kitchen in the basement of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, is having economic problems of its own. Organizers say they're reluctantly shutting it down, citing a steady, long-term decline in church contributions.

"The church has been in decline financially for a number of years. We are coming to a critical point," said the pastor, the Rev. Craig Moore, who came to the church in July. The church council has decided to cut the program in hopes of attracting a preschool or day care center to raise funds for the church, he said.

"We've incurred some costs we are struggling with," Moore said, causing the church to re-evaluate "spaces that are underutilized for profit generation." However, Moore said, the church hopes to eventually reopen the program somewhere else.

But for those dependent for at least one guaranteed hot meal at the church at 10 E. Mount Vernon Place, the closing of Carpenter's Kitchen is devastating.

Bernard Nelson, 50, said he has gone to "just about" every Carpenter Kitchen's Saturday night meal for the past eight years. Standing in line outside Our Daily Bread, a hot-meal program on Fallsway for a weekday lunch, he said he's not sure where he'll get his weekend dinners after Carpenter's Kitchen closes.

"Just take it one day at a time, I suppose," Nelson said. "God will provide."

Carpenter's Kitchen director Caroleann Myers said the program is "seeing more and more new people."

"This is at a time when more people are out of work," she said.

Volunteers have been handing out fliers to alert regular guests, but the initial announcement came with much sadness and "a lot of crying," Myers said. "One woman kept hugging me and asking. 'Where am I going to go eat?'"

The weekly meal helped hold some families over until paychecks of assistance subsidies were paid, Myers said, causing attendance to peak at the end of the month.

"They have a variety of food, and it's one of the places I can eat hot food," said Christopher Thompson, 50, who has been going to Carpenter's Kitchen for five years. He was homeless for two years before getting a Section 8 apartment on Charles Street, but he still goes each week and to lunch at Our Daily Bread to stretch out his food stamps, which tend to dry up at the end of the month.

"I love the fish and some fried chicken," he said. He said he went to the church even after last year's snow and they were still serving. "They are very nice people. They try to accommodate everybody," he said.

"This will leave a big hole. I'm not sure how it will be filled," said Dennis Murphy, program manager of Our Daily Bread, which serves a daily lunch to about 700 people a few blocks away. "I know that's a place that our guests will go Saturday nights."

He agreed that there are "limited" options on weekends at a time when the need continues to grow. Murphy said that Our Daily Bread saw an increase of 5 percent over the past fiscal year, and served 261,000 meals.

Carpenter's Kitchen began as a church response to a series of sermons in the mid-1980s that encouraged members of the congregation to get more involved with their neighborhood. Church members organized a committee to see what Mount Vernon needed, which turned out to be a place "where people could receive a hot meal on a Saturday," Myers said. The program was intended as a supplement to Our Daily Bread.

Since then, dinner has been served every Saturday from 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., including holidays. The dinner went on last February, even when the city streets were covered with several feet of snow and nearly everything in the area was closed.

The atmosphere in the basement is casual but welcoming, with about 10 people seated at each table where they are served.

Myers said the diners at Carpenter's Kitchen are treated "as guests in our home," and served a hearty meal of "meat and potatoes," some sort of homemade chocolate dessert — usually brownies or cookies — and fruit. Myers jokes that she never liked the term soup kitchen because "we never actually served soup."

At the end of meals, guests often get something small to take home, like cans of food or toiletries. One rainy weekend, volunteers handed out plastic ponchos. On Christmas, Myers said they were planning to give away long tube socks. The program also offered occasional health care services provided by the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing, such as blood pressure screenings.

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