Hungry in the West End addresses senior hunger in Providence's West End community -- an area of hard-core poverty burdened further by the recession. This series attempts to put a face on the problem of senior hunger in the West End and throughout America, and to give voice to those who are responding to the challenge of feeding the hungry. This is concluding Part 8 of the series. Start here to begin with Part 1.
By Jody McPhillips
If it weren’t for volunteers, a lot of Rhode Islanders might go hungry.
In soup kitchens and food pantries, food salvage operations and Meals on Wheels, an army of people is donating time and energy to feed others.
Day in, day out, they are chopping vegetables and scrubbing pots, transporting truckloads of surplus cereal and unsold sandwiches, scooping up packages of supermarket meat nearing its sell-by date.
It’s work that requires stamina, strength, and a deft touch with a population that can be under enormous stress. Many volunteers are retirees; some are poor or hungry themselves.
Hungry in the West End - The Video Series
Nobody’s better at it than Don Lincoln, who delivers meals to the homebound for Meals on Wheels. A few years back, he was between jobs when he found himself driving down Bath Street on Smith Hill.
“I looked up and saw the Meals on Wheels sign and thought, ‘Maybe they need a driver’,” he recalls. They did, but it wasn’t a paying job. It was Lincoln’s first experience as a volunteer, and he loved it.
"God gave me this job,” he says. After volunteering for several years, today he’s a paid Meals on Wheels employee, responsible for several of the state’s toughest routes in South Providence and the West End. “We’ve lost volunteers because of incidents in that area,” says volunteer coordinator Diane Brisette. On occasion, people have stolen food from the truck. Once somebody stole the truck itself, driving it to a nearby park and handing out food to the homeless.
Lincoln is at home in the neighborhood because it is where he grew up. “I was born and raised in South Providence, on Prairie Avenue,” he says. “They know me and I know them.”
Some of his clients can be challenging.
At Beneficent House, he has to pound on the door of a deaf resident. Eventually the door swings open, but the room appears empty. “Oh, she’s here,” he says, walking in to place the meal on a table. “She always hides in the bathroom when I come.”
At a newly built apartment complex on Thurbers Avenue, he has to use a special, coded knock on one door. “Puh-leeze, pleeeeeeeze open the door!” he croons, for a full minute. “She has dementia,” he says. “Sometimes I stand here for 10 minutes.”
When the door finally swings open, the bathrobe-clad lady tells him a long, disjointed story about somebody knocking on her door yesterday.
“I bet that was me,” he says on the way back to the truck. “One day she talked and talked about this woman who kept smiling at her, and I finally realized she had been looking into a mirror.”
Doreen Holmes has been volunteering at Mary House , the social service ministry of St. Patrick’s Church on Smith Street, for 22 years. Every Monday, volunteers prepare and serve a hot dinner for as many people as show up. She is there for hours, setting the tables, slicing up donated Calvitto’s pizza, doing whatever needs to be done. Her favorite part is when the guests arrive and she can sit and chat with them.
“I was once very poor, as a kid, although I didn’t really know it,” she says. Working at Mary House “has made me appreciate the small things. I’ll go home tonight—my house is heated. I have a house, and the clothes on my back. It is just incredible that not everybody has that.”
Over the years Holmes has formed countless friendships with the people who come to dine. One such friend is Carl Neitzel, who has been dining at Mary House for many years. “It’s always been a good meal here,” he says. “The parish people come in and sit with you at the table, and tend to your every need. I find it really heartening…these people have been my family.”
Some volunteers come as family units.
Dr. Yinsheng Wan, associate professor of biochemistry at Providence College, arrived at Mary House with wife Dong Qin, son Jerry and “adopted” son David Calianese (one of his PC students) to prepare a Chinese meal of sautéed cabbage, rice, vegetables, and Shanghai-style marinated chicken wings.
Every few months Dr. Wan brings all the groceries needed to feed a hundred or more hungry people and sets to work. “I’ve been doing this for many years,” he says as he tumbles a mountain of shredded cabbage in a wok sizzling with chopped garlic and ginger.
“To serve the people. We are fortunate to have the opportunity to serve the people. This is the best country in the world.”
At the St. Charles Borromeo soup kitchen on Dexter Street in Providence's West End, administrator Joan Zompa says her volunteer crew of up to 30 serves about 200 people every Thursday, although the total can top 300 by the end of the month.
"We do have elderly who come--some have been coming for years," she says. "There's been an increase over the past five or six years." Many among the clientele are homeless, while some have mental health issues. "Some just don't have the capacity for work, but more can and are desperately seeking work. The job situation in Rhode Island is horrific." According to the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, last year more than 130 people (or about three percent of the state’s homeless population of 4,410) were older than 60.
The food is prepared by volunteers from the culinary school at Johnson & Wales University. Teaching assistants Sarah Laferriere and Javone Duarte were putting together major amounts of shepherd's pie on a recent Thursday.
"This is a by-choice job for us," says Laferriere. "You really get to help people." Adds Duarte, "I enjoy seeing people smile on the way out. This is my way of giving back." They say students gain a lot from the experience.
"You don't really realize how bad it is until you get in here," says Laferriere. "We've had a couple of students cry. It's really hard."
At the Rhode Island community Food Bank, the hub for distribution of tons of food to 180 pantries, shelters and meal sites, volunteers are a critical part of day to day operations. "Our volunteers are really the lifeblood of our organization," says spokeswoman Kelly Seigh. "Without them we couldn't done all the work we get done."
One volunteer who seems ready to take on the entire system is Steve Martin of Riverside, who with his partner James McDougall, runs the food salvage operation We Share Hope. It started about five years ago with Martin loading loaves of unsold bread into his car.
Today he owns 10 trucks and about 30 volunteers criss-cross the state, collecting unused food that would otherwise be thrown away and taking it to about 100 agencies.
"Seven days a week, we're picking up food" from bakeries, grocery stores and institutions like Brown University. Other steady donors include 7 Stars Bakery, Panera's and Trader Joe's.
Reliability, he says, is key: donors need to know the food will be picked up on schedule and taken to places that will use it. "We find food and get it to people who need it. Companies don't want to throw food away, they want to give it to people," he says.
Martin, too, sees need growing among the elderly. "We see more and more people in trouble. It gets worse every week...They're on a fixed income, everything is going up at warp speed, they can't afford their medicines."
To Martin, feeding the needy is about more than food. "See what's happening here? We're building a community."
Hungry in the West End
Explore Jody McPhillips' Web series
Part 1: The Problem is Simple, But Not the Solution
Part 2: Feeding People Too Ashamed to Ask for Help
Part 3: Meals on Wheels Feeds the Homebound
Part 4: Food Pantries Feed All Comers
Part 5: Food & Friendship Served Up at St. Martin de Porres
Part 6: Nutritionists Help Seniors to Eat Right
Part 7: At 88, Theresa Gives Food Stamps a Second Try
Part 8: Volunteers Serve From the Heart, Get Back More Than They Give
Watch John Martin's Hungry in the West End documentary series
Episode 1: The Growing Problem
Episode 2: Doing More with Less
Episode 3: Food for the Soul
Episode 4: Emergency
Episode 5: What Is Affordable?
Episode 6: It's Okay
Episode 7: Abundance
Episode 8: "It's Good Work"
The Postal Service's "Stamp Out Hunger" day is May 11. Watch the video.
RI Monthly: Interview with John Martin on Hungry in the West End
TakePart.com: America's Grandparents Are Hidden Victims of Hunger Crisis
Enid Borden: Ending Senior Hunger Must Begin Today
Hunger News From TakePart.com
Ezra Klein on senior isolation: "Call Your Grandmother."
Governor Chafee Releases Report on RI SNAP, Welfare Fraud. Download the Report.
Washington Post: Food Stamps Put Rhode Island Town on Monthly Boom-and-Bust Cycle
RI Farmers Markets Growing...with Some Pain
Chaffee Kicking Off March for Meals Campaign
New York Times: More to Meal Delivery Than Food
Drive to End Hunger Launches 2013 Season in Daytona
US Conference of Mayors: Slow Recovery Keeps Pressure on Emergency Food and Shelter Services
AARP Announces Million Dollar Partnership to Fight Older Adult Hunger
Drive to End Hunger's Jeff Gordon Leads Pack of Celebrity Hunger Advocates.