Soup's On: An Emmaus Journal

Months of July and August 2019

This morning I went with Sister Rosanne while she met with women in need of a little extra help paying their bills. One woman was there with her child – an 8-year-old boy. He was so excited telling me that he got a scholarship to go to camp this summer. “I’m going to learn how to swim and fish and boat!”

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“How are you?” I asked a woman who stopped by the food pantry. “I’m okay,” she replied, “but I’m struggling with some anxiety today. Sometimes that happens. I feel it in my chest – in the shortness of breath.” Unfortunately, quite a few guests of Emmaus struggle with different sorts of mental illnesses and emotional distress. And often these struggles go undiagnosed or untreated due to a lack of adequate health care. If one is struggling to pay for food, paying for doctor’s visits and medications – along with bus passes to get to these appointments – might seem like a heavier burden than enduring untreated.

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A new family has been coming to the soup kitchen lately. There’s a mom, dad, and three young daughters aged 3-9. The eldest daughter most fluently speaks English. It’s clear that mom and dad understand English but are nervous to speak in fear of making a mistake. I understand this. When I was in college, I studied abroad in Santiago, Chile for five months. Previously, I had studied Spanish for seven years in school so I could read and write and understand most of what I heard, but my speaking level was conversational at most. When I arrived in Santiago, I was scared to talk. And then when I did talk, no one understood what I said because my accent was so poor. I became frustrated. I took a class – in Spanish – in my favorite subject and struggled to contribute to the discussions, not because I wasn’t passionate or knowledgeable but because my ability to speak the language wasn’t proficient. For the first time in my life I got a glimpse of how difficult it must be to be a New American attempting to offer to society the skills and passions and talents brought from your home country when communication was a barrier that keeps one from letting others know who you are and what you can contribute. For this reason, I’m especially kind and encouraging to those I meet who struggle to speak English. Likewise, I know there’s more to the parents of these beautiful young children than their silence and that, as soon as they become better acquainted, they will soon find themselves with family-sustaining jobs.

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Emmaus Ministries and St. Benedict Education Center – another ministry of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie – have begun a collaboration on a project to learn more about housing resources for guests in need at both ministries. Because both ministries encounter many folks from the City of Erie struggling to find and retain adequate housing options, the two are hoping to better understand which resources already exist in Erie and how to help our guests use these resources.

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“Can you help a woman outside?” a volunteer of the food pantry asked me. “She’s struggling with something but I’m not sure what advice to give.” When I met the woman outside, she had a three-year old with her. “We just moved to Erie and we’re currently staying in a shelter,” she told me. “I want to get us an apartment but before I can get into a new place, I have to pay at least a few hundred on my past utility bills.” There’s not really any services in Erie that are able to help with this and I told her so. She understood. But after she left, I thought a lot about her situation. What factors caused her to have such a high unpaid utility bill? Did something happen that was out of her control or was she fiscally irresponsible? Maybe she never learned what to prioritize in spending money – or never was taught how to budget? But at the same time, I wondered why the electric companies would let her bill get so high. After some point, wouldn’t it be responsible on their part to have a talk with her about how things are getting out of control, rather than continuing to charge her for what she clearly was unable to pay? And, now that she is in debt past a quick recovery point – what is she to do? Where is she to live? In a shelter for years, until she can scrounge up the money to pay back what’s due? And at some point, is there a possibility to see a human in need – even if she has made mistakes that led to her need – and offer forgiveness?

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I was biking from the Emmaus offices to the soup kitchen the other day when I ran into a few of the children who eat at the kitchen with their families. They stopped me on my bike and asked all kinds of questions of how far I ride and why I bike and what different parts on my bike were. Then they told me they’re starting school soon. “I’m going to be on my best behavior this year,” said Jacob, who is going into the fifth grade. “Because last year I got in trouble all the time.” Last year, Jacob would come to the kitchen with his mom and sister but not his dad – dad was serving time in jail. And it was clear Jacob was having a hard time with him away. At one point last year, when Jacob was getting in a lot of trouble, I remember him saying to me: “I’m going to drop out after the fifth grade.” “You’re what?!?” I responded. “Why? What will you even do?” He just shrugged his shoulders and said: “sit around. Do nothing.” So when he told me today that he was going to be on his best behavior this year because he really wants to do well in school and make his teachers see how smart he really is, I could have cried happy tears over his change in self-motivation and self-assurance.

Month of June 2019

Joan was in line at the Food Pantry when she asked Marie, a volunteer, if she knows if we have any clothes. “We don’t often have clothes,” said Marie, “because we’re not able to store them here. Which means we aren’t able to take donations either. But… what size are you looking for, just in case I hear of anything?” Joan responded. A woman standing behind Joan asked: “If you don’t mind me asking, where are you staying?” Joan responded. The woman said: “My daughter just unexpectedly moved out. Instead of graduating high school this month, she just up and left, leaving behind everything. I have clothes, shoes, jewelry, everything. I have no clue where she went. Do you want it? If so, I’ll drop it off at the place you’re staying.”

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“Would you like carrots?” I asked a woman at the Food Pantry. “No – last time I got them they tasted weird,” she started to say before interrupting herself. “But actually, I think they tasted weird because they were poisoned by my neighbor… she sneaks into my house and poisons my food. I’ve lost 70 pounds in the last six months because of food poisoning… She’s trying to kill me! She’s a criminal and should be locked up in jail!” Whether or not this is true, I can’t imagine how this woman can go about her daily life –fulfilling her basic needs – when living in such a constant state of fear.

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Sister Mary just got off the phone. “Wow, that’s great. Last week this woman needed help with everything and today she just said she got a job, a place to stay, a cell phone, and has her kids in school.” Wouldn’t it be great if things worked out so easily for all our guests in need?

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Driving past the school at dismissal, the children were walking to the Kids Cafe. Sister Mary and I drove past and we rolled down the window to say hello. They waved back and called us out by name. It’s nice to be known.

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Today one of our dear guests, Tom, was laid to rest. The Emmaus staff and several volunteers attended the ceremony. When we arrived, we were all surprised by how many cars were in the parking lot. Bunches of people came out for Tom’s funeral – neighbors and even friends from his childhood. He was a well-liked man in the east side of Erie. Sisters Lucia and Claire Surmik provided us all with a gift by singing near Tom’s casket an old Slovak song. Though Tom was a proud Polish man, they thought he still might appreciate their Slovak.

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“I’m exhausted,” said the young mother who brought her three little kids in to eat right before the soup kitchen was scheduled to close. “I just worked a 10-hour shift, picked the kids up from daycare, and I’m hoping they’ll go to bed well tonight.” She was on her own with the children because her husband was working his job. “What kind of work are you doing?” I asked. “Landscaping,” she replied. “It’s a great job but it’s hard work.” The oldest child, a six-year-old girl full of bouncy energy, added: “Mommy makes a lot of money! Her boss pays her every week!” Her mom laughed. “Well, I’m not paid every week, nor to I make ‘a lot’ of money – but enough to pay some of the bills for now.”

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“I just moved and everything in my house is all disorganized and I don’t have any food and can’t remember the last time I ate…” she said in all one breath when she came to the door of the soup kitchen. “I’m starving.”

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“I make $8 an hour,” a woman waiting to meet with Sister Rosanne – the woman’s advocate – told me. “That’s not enough to get by. Even working two jobs I can’t make enough in a day to pay for my rent and all my other bills. I’m planning to go to the Tech and get a degree in Management so I can at least make $10 an hour or more.” I’m glad to hear she is thinking ahead and being proactive about trying to support herself but at the same time, I wonder if the $10 an hour she’ll make after her degree will pay for her current bills and cover her newly acquired student loans.

Month of May 2019

Last week at the soup kitchen our regular guest, Greg, recited a poem he wrote. “Wow, I said, “I didn’t know you wrote poetry.” He smiled and told us that was one of many, many poems he has written over the years. I told him if he brought in his favorite ten poems, I would type them up for him. This week, he brought in a grocery bag filled with his poetry, dating back to the 1980s.

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The children only had a half day of school today so the family dining room was very busy. I enjoy it when it’s busy – it’s nice to have so many people around talking and laughing and eating good food. At one point, every table was filled and each family had at least three kids.

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An adult guardian of children at the Kids Cafe has been bullying the other children. This is unacceptable at the Kids Cafe – or at any of the Emmaus locations. She’s been asked to act differently but hasn’t changed in a few weeks time. Unfortunately, because she’s a danger to the others, the children she’s watching will not be able to attend the Kids Cafe for a while.

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I’ve spent the week typing up different poems for Greg. He also shared with me his life story, which he calls “A Life Redeemed.” It feels so intimate and personal to read someone’s handwritten experiences about their life. And reading it has opened my eyes up to a world very different than mine – one filled with a big family, lots of drinking and drugs, car and motorcycle accidents, political commentary, and a lot of faith in Jesus – faith that holds everything else together in his life and gives him meaning in the most difficult of times.

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Today Sister Rosanne received a letter in the mail from a young man who is serving time in jail. When he was younger, she used to support his family. “You were truly a blessing to me while I am in prison and you will always be my God mom,” he says. And he recounts how what she did when he was a child sticks with him to this day: “I remember as a child when you took all of us kids to the movies to see Home Alone 2 in the movie theater. You were always there for us and I wanted to thank you for all that you have done for us while we were kids and now that we are adults you are still there for us. Thank you. I’ll see you soon.”

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One of the landlords of a soup kitchen guest who needs help came to the soup kitchen to talk with Rita and Sister Rosanne. Rita took the time to talk with him about how many of our guests have money to get a place and pay for it but are scared to do so because if they hit a crisis, they can no longer pay for their places.

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A woman was being asked questions about who her support system is - family, friends, other people she calls when in need. “I have seven siblings but they aren’t my support system,” she said. “When I need someone, I go to Emmaus and talk to Colleen (one of our regular volunteers) and the other Emmaus staff. They help me.”

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G was acting up at the soup kitchen, swearing and trying to get in fights with her husband in front of everyone in the dining room. Sister Rosanne tried to calm her down but it didn’t work. So finally she said, “G, listen, you can’t act like this here. Your behavior is unacceptable so you have to leave today. You can come back tomorrow but today you’re out.” Then Sister Rosanne shared some Benedictine wisdom with G: “Whatever happened today is over and done with. The Rule of Benedict says you fall and get up. Each day is a new day, a fresh start. Tomorrow you can start again.”

Month of April

There’s a family that comes to the soup kitchen regularly. The mom has four children, all under the age of six. Tonight, two of them came running in the door, greeting me in their usual manner of yelling: “Hi best friend!” Their brother, a five-year-old, brought me a flower he had just picked from a neighbor’s yard. It’s so nice to be recognized and adored.

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I just read something that says “Every time a child changes schools, it sets them back 3-6 months.” Some of our children at the soup kitchen or Kids Cafe change schools often – and many because their parents are unable to continue paying rent or utilities at a place. Often, we hear from parents that the electricity/heat bill is through the roof in winter because the apartments they are staying in are not adequately quipped for Erie’s winters, i.e. they have broken or old windows or too little insulation. Yet several landlords haven’t fixed the problems because the residents pay for heat so landlords don’t know or don’t care to make changes to better winterize the house, which would bring tenants’ costs down, which would in turn allow tenants to stay in places longer than they currently do.

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Lately at the food pantry, we’re giving out dark chocolate that comes in a small wrapped package that looks like a thin bar of soap – one that you’d get at a hotel. A week or so ago, a woman came in and, upon receiving another piece of chocolate said, “I really like this soap but it smelled a lot like chocolate when I used it…”

March 2019

This morning I went to Erie High School and talked with their teachers about poverty, homelessness, and hunger in Erie, a topic the faculty is very familiar with since the school services many families struggling with poverty. The teachers had an in-service day, so all were there – about 60 or so. We talked about the cycles of poverty that some of the students might be experiencing and how this poverty comes about. “Are these people just lazy?” I asked the teachers, addressing a common myth. “Not all of them,” a teacher responded. “Some struggle to just take care of basic human needs: like fulfilling hunger and finding a place to sleep each night. If they’re solely focused on these basic needs, how will they ever be able to move ahead in life?”

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Today I spoke to participants at SBEC, St. Benedict Education Center, about the services of Emmaus Ministries and how they can benefit if they need food. One of the men was pretty quiet except when I began talking about the Kids Cafe. “My children go there,” he said, “and it’s been wonderful for them. I really recommend it.” A woman sitting next to him said, “My son and I just moved here from Pittsburgh. He’s an only child and I’ve been looking for something for him to do after school. This looks like a great option.”

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Tonight at the soup kitchen, there was a mother with five small children. The youngest was a baby in a car seat, the second youngest was in a high chair. As I was pouring their drinks, the middle child proudly announced to me: “We have two babies!” So I replied: “That’s wonderful. I don’t have any babies.” She looked at me. “You don’t?” she asked. Then she said: “You will! A baby will come in your belly!”

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I am so impressed with one of our volunteers, Ann, who helped a regular guest we have that’s going through a gender transition. The guest is transitioning from female to male and has changed his style and his name and his pronouns already. But Ann didn’t know all that yet and wasn’t quite sure how to address the guest. So when the guest came in, she said: “Is your name still Jenny?” The guest said no and told her his new name. Ann said: “Okay” and began to address him according to his gender identity. Not only is this an appropriate and kind way to interact with someone who identifies as transgender, it’s also a beautiful testament of how our volunteers accept our guests as exactly who and where they are each day.

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“Every woman should know where she lives and her phone number,” said Sister Rosanne Lindal-Hynes to a husband of a woman asking for some help. Sister Rosanne was trying to elicit information from her but the woman doesn’t speak English and couldn’t answer. Her husband speaks English but says his wife doesn’t learn well. “Why don’t you want to talk to me?” He asked Sister Rosanne. “Do you not like men?” Sister Rosanne responded: “I am an advocate for women and I believe each woman should be able to speak for herself.”

January & February 2019

“It’s not just that the food here is so good,” said a guest, “but it’s also a nice atmosphere. So nice that I would even bring a date here!”

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Phil dropped off a tub of money that he used to collect change in. It wasn’t very big – maybe the size of a piggy bank. When Margaret counted the money, she was surprised. “There was $658 in there!” she exclaimed. That’s a lot of change. And that’s especially a lot of change to donate to Emmaus – thanks to Phil for caring.

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Very regularly, one of the older Benedictine sisters sends money. “Here is a small share of my abundance,” she wrote, “for the poor and needy that you serve so lovingly and with such care. With my gratitude, my prayers, my love.”

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“I am 84 years old,” says the note that came to Emmaus after the latest Annual Appeal, “and I only live on Social Security which I receive only once a month. Not very much. I am all by myself. No one to help me. Will send at least $5 later on. God bless.”

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Students from one of the local Catholic schools made colorful placemats for the guests of the soup kitchen. One guest held his placemat up and said: “If I had my own place, I’d hang this on the wall.”

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Someone asked Fr. Leo to say a mass for his mother and offered a donation. The priest said: “I’ll say the mass if you send the offering to Emmaus instead.”

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Today a woman at the food pantry asked for a glove. “Just one,” she said, “because I only lost one glove.”

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Yesterday, I got to hold a tiny baby at the soup kitchen. He was only 11 days old.

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Union workers at GE are on strike because they cannot come to a just agreement with Wabtec. Rob, a union leader, called Sister Mary and asked if we could help some of the families get food. “Of course we will help you all,” she said, “you’ve done so much for and have been loyal to Emmaus for many years.” When she got off the phone, she addressed the office saying: “We’ll open the food pantry an extra day for them if necessary.”

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Right when he walked in the door, all the volunteers noticed: Greg – one of our loyal guests – had cut off his long beard and straggly hair. “My mom was my hero,” he said, “and this was her death day. I cut my hair in honor of her. She never liked it when I had a beard!”

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In addressing the staff at an Emmaus meeting, Sister Mary reflected on her frustrations of the way the poor are often treated. “They’re barely able to choose anything for themselves. Everything they get they have to ask for; and they don’t get to choose what they will get.” For example, even at the soup kitchen, the only thing guests can choose for themselves is what dessert they get. Everything else is picked for them: we choose the meat and the potatoes and the vegetables the guests will eat. It made me think about all the choices I take for granted.

Month of October

Emmaus is sometimes a place family members meet: for example, tonight at the soup kitchen we had two sets of twins! One set is four, the other 12 years old. They are cousins and told me that twins run in their family. Both families I have seen before, but I’ve never seen them in the family dining room together. They were thrilled to see one another, the older girls just as happy to be models for the younger ones as the younger ones were happy to be coddled by the elders.

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I’ve been going through a lot of past newsletters, news articles, and pictures in preparation for our Volunteer Appreciation Brunch. Here are a few things that have struck me… how young the sisters looked when they first started! How many different volunteers have helped out over the years. How many different places the soup kitchen has moved to over the years. How steady the numbers have been, staying around about 150-225 guests per evening at the soup kitchen for years.

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This morning I heard on the radio that less than half the world lives on $5 or less a day. Five dollars or less. Five dollars buys what in Erie? A burger and fries at McDonalds? Two bus passes – one to work and one back home? Yet this half of the world is still surviving. How they find the ambition to do it, I have no clue.

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Soup kitchen weekly volunteer, Cindy Liotta, and I talked with two religion classes at Mercyhurst University. Our presentation was entitled “Feeding the Hungry: Graces and Challenges.” After introducing what Emmaus Ministries does, we talked with the students about some of the common struggles our guests encounter – like mental illnesses and addictions, homelessness, joblessness and underemployment – and how society has often failed them. Then we talked about some of the common myths of poverty and poor people: “is it okay to tell people in poverty to just ‘get a job’?” we started with and debunked quickly, by again talking about how we’ve experienced poverty affecting our guests. We used Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to do so. “When one’s basic needs, like having adequate housing, food, clean water, clothing, and safety are not met, one is unable to think of anything other than fulfilling these needs,” we discussed with the students. “How is one supposed to get a job if she is unable to find a safe space to sleep and store her belongings before and during an interview, unable to take a shower or wash her clothes to arrive at an interview presentable, unable to think of anything other than where her next meal will come from and arrive with a growling stomach, and unable to offer a phone number or address for which the interviewer can call her back?”

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“I’m so hungry,” said the person on the phone. “I’m so glad you answered the phone. Please, help me. I’m so hungry.” We don’t get calls like this often. I mean, people will call and say they are hungry or that they need something – but rarely do they say so bluntly and so desperately: “I’m hungry!” They usually just say: “We ran out of food.” or “We need help with food.” For some reason, hearing the basic need for food addressed in the blunt and honest desperate way of: “I’m hungry” is so much harder to hear.

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Today I talked with a donor. “We started giving to Emmaus when our children grew up and left the house,” she said. “At that time, we realized we had money left over from our grocery bills and decided to donate that to the Soup Kitchen.” What a great idea!

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One of the children at the Kids Cafe has visited the Emmaus Grove Garden. “Remember the carrots I picked there?” she asked when she saw me. “They were soooooooo good!”

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Today the Nuns on the Bus came to Erie. They are on the road to Mar el Lago, FL in hopes of bettering the tax policies and getting people to vote in favor of a just tax policy, where the poor are not overly taxed and the extreme rich let off easily. One of the speakers was a woman from Erie who has struggled with health issues. When she was younger, she had a great job with wonderful benefits and upward mobility opportunities. Then she got sick. At first, her health benefits covered the costs of her surgeries and whatnot. But then the doctors told her she wasn’t able to return to work. She lost her job. And lost healthcare because no one would take her with a pre-existing condition. Then she was a “burden” to society; she couldn’t cover her costs so tax payers were covering her cost. With the creation of the Affordable Care Act, she finally had help again with healthcare insurance and could have the procedures needed and began feeling better enough to work some. If the ACA is extinguished, so will her healthcare. This is how easy it is to go from a well-paying job with great benefits to poverty and desperation: one severe, unexpected illness.

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Today I got to use something I learned in college – I had an entire conversation in Spanish with a woman on the phone!

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“You always remember us at holidays,” said a guest of the soup kitchen when a volunteer handed her candy for Halloween. “Thank you.”

Month of September

Today, two children from the soup kitchen came into the Emmaus Grove Garden. They were so excited to pick carrots and tomatoes – but weren’t as excited to pick the green beans. Running from one bed to another, they gathered a few pounds of veggies to take home. As they left, I heard them tell their mother: “Mom, we need to get a garden at our house!”

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Since the end of June, over 180 individual women have called Emmaus asking for help with paying rent or other bills in order to keep their families in a stable living situation. One hundred and eighty!

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Kellen celebrated his second birthday this week. Last year, he celebrated his first birthday at the soup kitchen with us. His oldest sister remembered. “Remember?” she said to me as I brought them cake, “Everyone in the room came over and sang to him! We should do that again!”

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Katie is only a year old. She comes to the kitchen with her blended family. “She LOVES you!” Her brother said to me across the room when Katie wouldn’t stop turning to look at me while she ate her food. Her mom laughed. “It’s true,” she said, “Katie gets really excited to see you.” Hey, isn’t it great to have a fan club of preschoolers?

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Late last month, Janelle (one of the guests at Emmaus) had her baby! I was just thinking about her… I knew she had been pregnant and was due soon, but I couldn’t remember the exact date when she was due. The first day the family came back to the food pantry, the baby didn't come because she was a preemie. The hospital chose to keep her in the NICU for a few days. They’re also worried she might have been born addicted to something, so they’re keeping her to watch for that, too. The second time the family came, the baby came along. The volunteers were so excited to see such a tiny baby. "Let's feed that mother an extra hamburger!" one of them said. "We want to make sure the mom's getting enough food to keep that tiny baby growing!"

Month of August

Somedays, I listen to the voicemails we get in the office and I just want to weep. I’m devastated by the amount of suffering so many women in Erie live with day to day.

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The food pantry’s truck broke down. That means that the volunteers weren’t able to use the truck to get the food from Second Harvest to distribute at the pantry. “Do we need to close for the day?” people asked. “No,” said Sister Karen. We have to feed the people who are expecting us. Karen thought quickly, renting a U-Haul truck and picking up the food that way. Because the truck didn’t have a lift, Karen and two volunteers lifted out each crate of food by hand and moved it into the food pantry. When all was ready, the food pantry was able to open just a half hour late. Talk about prompt and dedicated service.

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The children are going back to school today. Last week, we had several requests from families for help with school supplies and uniforms.

Month of July

There’s a family that comes in every once and a while. They have ten children but they don’t all always come at the same time. Today every kid was present so after they ate, we lined them up in order of age and Sister Mary took a picture of them. We promised to print off pictures and give them to the family to keep. The mom was delighted. “We have pictures of some of them individually,” she said, “but we’ve never had a picture of all of them together before!”

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This morning I met a young mom and her one-year-old child who need help. I invited them to come to the soup kitchen for dinner. “We would come,” the woman said, “but I don’t like to be around the men. Whenever I go places, men always try to give me their number or make crude comments. I don’t want to go somewhere with lots of men.” This devastates me. She doesn’t feel comfortable going out to get the things she needs because her fear of a few men’s lewd behavior. “I’m so sorry,” I said, “but I do want you to know that we have a family dining room where you and your son can eat in peace.” But even if they can eat in peace, that doesn’t mean she won’t be approached in the food line or on her way to or from the kitchen.

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Things seem to usually work out at the soup kitchen, as if directed by some invisible organizer who plans things to work out just perfectly. For example, this morning a regular volunteer called and said that unfortunately this month her group would be unable to make and deliver deserts. Not a few minutes later came another call from a mother saying: “My son and mother-in-law decided to made cupcakes for the guests at your soup kitchen. When can we drop them off?”