Skip to main content

The Volunteers

Voices from Saint Joseph’s Soup Kitchen
Donna-Gary_The-Volunteers_Interview_Arts

Photograph by Ali Accarino (2017)

DONNA GARY is the editor and project visionary behind the following interviews, but is by no means the creator of these stories. No, these stories are in the vernacular and the tone of the those on the other side of the mic. This is their story. But first if you must know, or intensely curious, below is a little bit about the project and about Donna.

DONNA: I grew up in Chicago, Illinois, and was an active teenager. I was doing community service all throughout high school. Marathon water stations were a personal favorite. I could wait a whole hour, with my arm stretched out, a half-cup of water ready for the taking. This was how I got closest to the some of the world’s fastest elite long-distance runners. Does it matter that they didn’t linger?

I used to associate volunteering with some form of satisfaction. And I’ve constantly found myself at the mercy of those giving their time for free, expecting nothing in return. When I came to NYU as a student, my freshman year I only volunteered once. I was a mess. I partied way too hard, and slouched way too much. I realized service had been one constant in my whole life and needed it desperately for stability.

The next semester I enrolled in a class that paired you with a steady volunteer gig. Saint Joe’s was not on the list, but I liked it so much better than all the other options. So I did both.

That was Spring 2016. I left Saint Joe’s for the summer and fall because I was out of town. But the minute spring arrived I was back. No class credit involved, I just missed being there. Maybe I liked the way Saturday morning shifts at SJSK meant none of my hungover friends would make it. Maybe I liked being surrounded by strangers doing simple busywork. Maybe I liked the way the volunteer coordinator, Steve, always reminded me I was a poet because I had told him once offhandedly. I wouldn’t realize one major reason why I kept coming back to Saint Joe’s until I took an oral history course at university. There, I was encouraged to do an interview project.

I wouldn’t know I would build a whole project around a question like What Keeps You Coming Back to Saint Joe’s? without asking myself first. I especially didn’t know why I kept coming back. Then on a particularly warm spring morning, a patron, a guest joining us for a meal,  said, “I don’t need to come here every Saturday, I have an apartment, but I used to be on the streets, but I always come back, to remember where I came from.”

His name is Tree and he calls me Chicago. But that’s another story. The point is that in that moment I asked myself, Where do I come from? And like a rusty latch of an attic door dropping open, a ladder of hiding memories fell upon me. For the greater part of my freshman year in high school and the summer thereafter, my guardian, my younger sister, and I had been quite homeless.

Usually I say “houseless” to mean, I didn’t have a physical house, but I had a place I felt at home. My guardian was smart and as resourceful as an unemployed guardian of two could be, and as such we stayed in some of the better shelters. They were still awful. I was still in school as we moved from shelter to shelter, as the time limits on one’s stay varies depending on where you go. My guardian was quite secretive and suspicious of everyone, and as such my whole social life freshman year was a myriad of lies about where I was and where I was going. I felt as though I could trust no one, especially with the stigma around being homeless. I was only fourteen after all. After a short bout fighting depression, I “moved” out and began staying with a family friend. Things began to look up from there.

Maybe my own stint of homelessness drove me to stay at Saint Joe’s long after that class ended. Maybe I stayed because they treat their guests like distant relatives, always an open door, never kicking anyone out, and all ears for the good and the rusty stories.

CHLOE is a seasoned volunteer at St. Joe’s. She was also the resident hall director of the dorm I lived in when I first began volunteering at St. Joe’s. I see her almost every Saturday when I volunteer, even though my days living in the dorm she manages are long past. Now she leads hall programs where freshman are encouraged to volunteer at the soup kitchen.

Four Years in the Making

My friend Leah had gone to St. Joe’s church since she started going to NYU. The soup kitchen didn’t become a non-profit until I think 2015, so prior to that, the church ran the soup kitchen completely, and it was a faith-based organization. So through going to the church, Leah had been going to the soup kitchen and had been keeping it up for years. I was her friend for all that time. She would always invite me to come, knowing that I was interested in community service in New York. Unfortunately, Saturdays were never good for me. The entire four years at NYU, I never took her up on that offer.

After I graduated, I found myself devoting more of my time to work, and I was at a call center. That kind of work, working solely with customer service and also not face to face, that kind of work can be very draining. It can make you feel like you’re not helping anybody. And that’s where I was.

Leah convinced me to join her at St Joe’s. It might have been April, it might have been May. It was definitely around the springtime. I started meeting people through Leah. Everyone already knew everyone so I felt like I was meeting a friend of a friend instead of strangers. I went straight into chopping onions. It was a great way to get to know them.

A WELCOME

I didn’t get the introductory version of St. Joe’s that first-timers usually get, because I started going with a regular. Usually the first time someone volunteers they’ll sit with the volunteer coordinator, Steve Fanto. Leah went to Maine for medical school, and I kept coming back. I’ve been going to St. Joe’s Soup Kitchen for almost two years now.

STEVE is the current volunteer coordinator at St. Joe’s. He doesn’t just help manage volunteers but plays an intimate role in the interactions with patrons and volunteers. He is the all around go-to guy for any spills, jokes, questions, and problems that may arise over the course of any given Saturday morning at the soup kitchen.

Hi guys, how ya doin? I’m Steve, sorry I’m late, I came from Hell’s Kitchen. You came from Chatham? You? Okay, alright, good. Welcome to St. Joseph’s Restaurant.

Guys, we have two goals today. Two.

Number One (our chef Julia has already started on it) is to put together a well-rounded tasty, hearty meal for us this morning. So that when our guests arrive at 1:30 or so, the restaurant doors open for them, they are able to come in, comfortably, sit down and relax.

Number one is putting the meal together.

And we’re pretty lucky we have volunteers who are working during the week with outside agencies that were designed especially to help agencies like ours. Ya know, they’re supermarkets for agencies like ours where the government helps too? Over the internet we can buy all the food that we need! And in these closets around us is all our inventory which is put together. And our food procurement person talks to our chef, ya know, say early in the week, and they’ve decided what they’re gonna eat. They decided all the food they are gonna make is here ready for us, ready to make. That’s the first priority.

CHLOE: We make accommodations as we go along. I’ve seen people switch out items or see if a dish can be altered for someone’s specific needs. We try to have something that will account for any restriction that there might be. St. Joe’s always provides a vegetarian option and a gluten-free option.

STEVE: The second priority, guys, is creating a comfortable setting for our guests.

A setting where, when one sits down, they have a chance to relax. If that’s not with other guests, we see that with volunteers. Where no one’s rushed. Nudged to be faster. So that another person can sit.  Heck, it’s perfectly okay with us if people put their head down, crashing. Ya know, sleeping for a few minutes and be able to chill out, that’s fine with us. That works. There aren’t rules like that. So it helps ya know to have that setting ya know where people feel comfortable. So number one it’s putting a meal together, and two, creating a place where people are comfortable.

And a little history, it’s somewhere over the last thirty-five, forty years or so when somebody at the church decided that the basement was ideal and that maybe something more should be getting on down there on Saturday mornings. So they found some members of the community and handed the keys off to them and, ya know, said get busy down there in the basement so to make something happen. Ya know, community like. Bring some people together, and I don’t know, maybe they said make a difference.

And at least in my perspective, over the last fifteen years or so, every Saturday down here, there is a difference being made.

Volunteers from here, from high schools, from churches from different parts of New Jersey. If not high schools, members of the church, members of New York University if not other universities. Current students, alumni students. Members of different companies, companies based here in New York or all around.

CHLOE: When I started coming to St. Joe’s I was living in SoHo, and I was a ten to fifteen minute walk away, and since then I’ve moved to Harlem. Now the commute from my apartment to Saint Joe’s is equal to the commute that I have for work. So the commute is kind of long to go considering that there are soup kitchens I could go to instead.

STEVE: Ya know they [volunteers] are on the phone or checking the internet Googling volunteering and finding us? And it comes together. So with the food procurement person, with Julia our chef today, by the way Julia is one of five or six chefs, each has a specialty and they each serve on their particular Saturday. I’m talking to volunteer groups, maybe to Chris [one of our chefs], months ago to make sure this was gonna work out for you guys today. There was a church group from Minnesota that called this week and they are coming in August ya know, five or six months in advance. And there’s a place for them some August Saturday morning right here for them to jump in. So we’ll have some Minnesota flavor.

CHLOE: One of the things I appreciate about St. Joe’s is the way the operation runs. It’s very structured. There’s a formula. The volunteers rely on each other because they are well versed in what needs to happen. Few of the chefs are new, it’s not their first rodeo. They know what needs to be done and they set up assembly lines at some point.

Tables first.

Have somebody take care of the lemonade.

Have somebody take care of the fruit cups.

Start rolling the utensils.

Everyone kind of works off of each other. I love that energy. I love how organized it is.

STEVE: And if I haven’t mentioned it already we are a restaurant, and that means the New York City health inspector may just come by our restaurant, and I wish I had advance notice when the inspector is coming by, but there is no such thing. But when I see the clipboard coming out of their pouch I start thinking about a few things. One is that we are practicing number one, the right hygiene methods and that for everyone applies.

Gloves.

Hats.

Aprons.

They’ll check on that.

CHLOE: Any kind of food prep that will happen at a restaurant will happen in St. Joe’s as well. Everything from washing the vegetables to the temperature the chicken has to have.

STEVE: We have to maintain our standards just like other cafés in the neighborhood, whether they are more or less fancy. St. Joe’s? Real fancy. The goal here, now more immediately speaking: We are gonna turn this place into a restaurant and get rid of some of the older tables and bring out some of the newer china for our guests today and from these two rooms in the corner here, bring out all the ingredients, set up work stations on different parts of the floor and get busy. We’re here to get busy. And jump in.

And I’ll tell ya what. At 12:30 we’ll likely be finished with the preparation, so I want everyone to know they are welcome to take a break, take a little walk but to be back here at ten to one. I know I’m generally feeling a little hungry and, you all may feel the same, we are eating together. The volunteer lunch. For one testing out the food, and whether it’s more or less important, getting nourishment so we can kick it in when our guests get here. Guys we’re hosts, let’s be the best we can.

CHLOE: I fell in love with the atmosphere. We make something. The meal prep, the sandwiches, the fruit cups, rolling up the utensils. I feel like I always get the job of processing the carrots. I’m not sure how I always end up with that job. Maybe it’s because I know where the processor is. But I feel like I’m always asked to process the carrots.

We’re actually making something to be consumed by other people. It is a place where you are very clearly serving other people. We have a bill of rights that’s posted on some of the columns. We have it in English and Spanish, and it lists basic things like no one will ever be turned away from St. Joe’s because of x, y, or z. It’s the kind of community service that involves producing something. The kind of volunteering that I do at St. Joe’s is perfect for me. I keep coming for the people. I noticed it more with the volunteers that stay for the second shift have even deeper connections because they come so often. They can catch up. Steve especially. Steve has long conversations with the patrons. He knows what’s going on in their life and I think it’s great.

STEVE: My parents had an influence on me. Perhaps in my teenage years I was lucky that my father got very involved with communities that I was connected to. He did something fairly amazing. He took up sort of a role sort of a management role within the nonprofit baseball community for kids. It’s fair to say well before something more elaborate came up, through the community with my dad, I just got a sort of buzz, it’s sort of contagious. Watching Dad do it and following him around, feeling the energy on a Saturday morning no less, during my teenage years at the local basketball auditorium I think had an influence. Not just playing, but being part of the organization.

It’s funny, my mother was and remains the hosts of hosts at home. Her, she cooks everything and just takes care of if not family, others. Volunteering for the poor. And my dad as I mentioned jumped into the community by the baseball league, and so I guess some of that wore off. I know I learned something from that in a good way.

When it came to the guests arriving for lunch, I liked the variety and the diversity of that community too. I liked the mere fact that the theme of here and where I came from was the same; was to make people feel at home. To be able to give them something fresh and tasty and to treat them like I anyone would host at their home or anywhere else. And give this group, our guests, them the same experience as if they were going to be taken care of.

What struck me as not much different as sitting at my table on a weekend with multiple family members and ya know there being someone who never stopped talking or being someone who was shy and ya know someone who had to have three portions or someone who just picked at the sides of the bread and is happy. So I’ve got an uncle just like this, or have a cousin or a sister something just like that person, kind of connected with the idea of taking care of people, of family, of community.