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Even during COVID-19 pandemic, soup kitchen serves meals

The St. Vincent de Paul Society Soup Kitchen has continued to serve its patrons throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, but the effort has taken persistence, strong support from the business community, the Soup Kitchen’s 60 volunteers and a lot of love from a lot of people, according to its founder, Sister Paula DelGrosso.

In Sister Paula’s mind there was no question — pandemic or not, she was going to continue to serve her clients. She refers to the soup kitchen as her “ministry.”

But, she knew things had to change with social distancing and the wearing of facial masks as new rules ordered by President Donald Trump and Gov. Tom Wolf.

Sister Paula and her assistant, Sister Pauline Kawtoski, discussed ways to alter the format of the soup kitchen, which for the past 28 years has provided a sit-down, hot meal five days a week, sometimes to more than 200 people.

Also, like all other nonprofit groups, it was forced to cancel one of its largest fundraisers, a chicken barbecue scheduled for April.

By the time the new rules came down, Sister Paula said she had already sold many tickets for the barbecue, and she faced the possibility of having to refund the money.

Despite these obstacles, a plan was developed to keep the soup kitchen open.

Plan needs tweaking

Initially, the volunteers shut down the dining hall and began placing the hot meals in individual containers.

They allowed only six people at a time into the dining room, where the now take-out meals were distributed.

That plan quickly proved unworkable.

While social distancing was possible for those coming into the dining hall, a crowd developed in the parking lot along the 2200 block of Union Avenue where the Soup Kitchen is located.

Also, some of the patrons would arrive an hour or more before the 11:30 a.m. start time to be among the first in line — again, a problem when it came to social distancing.

It was finally decided that the meals, which are packed each day by a crew of up to six volunteers, would be placed on a large rack and moved outside the building for distribution.

Many of the patrons are able to walk to the soup kitchen, but most arrive by motor vehicle or bicycle.

At first, nobody was sure how the system would work, but with Sister Paula and others standing outside directing traffic and ushering those on foot through the line — in cold rain, snow and windy conditions — the system has proved remarkably efficient.

The patrons are not permitted to gather, and the interaction between volunteers and patrons, while polite and pleasant, usually remains short.

As each person passes along the line, they are not only offered a meal but also bread, cereal, cakes and a variety of other items .

On May 7, hundreds of boxes of food, each weighing about 25 pounds, arrived from the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank in Harrisburg, an organization associated with the Feeding America Program.

The boxes were distributed to more than 100 of the soup kitchen’s patrons.

Sometimes there is a surprise among the line of vehicles passing slowly in front of the soup kitchen.

One driver pulled out of the line into an adjacent parking lot. Volunteers Jim Shannon and Brenda Green approached him with an offering of a hot meal and a supply of bread.

“I’m not here to eat,” he said.

He was there to offer a contribution.

Successful in business, the driver said he had contributed to the soup kitchen when it first began and just wanted to contribute to the program during this time of need.

He wrote out a check and gave it to Sister Paula, then drove away, still refusing to take one of the meals.

Sister Paula was elated at the act of kindness, knowing the soup kitchen’s fundraiser had just been canceled.

“This is how God works. No matter how many times it happens, I am still in awe. I can’t believe people are so good,” she said.

Many others have stopped during the pandemic to offer contributions.

She said when it became obvious the chicken barbecue had to be canceled, she offered to refund the money for the tickets, yet not one person or group accepted a refund.

This is the type of support that has enabled the St. Vincent de Paul Soup Kitchen to continue its mission of feeding people during a time of crisis, she said.

There is a need

Sister Paula began to think about a soup kitchen almost three decades ago when, after a career in education, she was asked to become director the St. Vincent de Paul Society’s food program in Altoona.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society for the Altoona-Johnstown Roman Catholic Diocese is located in Johnstown, and she supervised the distribution of food items to area food pantries.

She quickly became convinced of the need for a soup kitchen in Altoona after a young mother described how tough it was to feed her children on a small income.

Not all were convinced of the need.

“One gentleman said he didn’t think there was a need in Altoona,” Sister Paula said.

She disagreed, saying, “I respect your viewpoint, but there is nothing wrong with people who fall on hard times. There is no shame in having less fortunate people. The shame would be if we don’t do something to help them.”

Her mission was to create a food kitchen that provided daily meals to people without taxing the financial resources of the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

One of the volunteers at the Altoona soup kitchen, Doug Wolf, a member of an Altoona Rotary Club, said Sister Paula has an amazing ability to find people who can help operate the program.

That organizational ability has resulted in a coalition of support from the area’s business community, individual contributors and a large number of volunteers who unload the food, prepare menus, cook the meals and make sure the soup kitchen receives a daily cleaning.

“She’s a good leader,” Wolf said, explaining how Sister Paula tends to attract volunteers who take their roles seriously, yet enjoy what they are doing.

He has been volunteering there for 10 years as part of a Rotary community outreach effort, and said he enjoys working in the soup kitchen at least one day a week.

“She has a nice operation,” Wolf said.

Steve Sheetz, chairman of the Sheetz Family Council and a representative of the business community, has been a major supporter of the St. Vincent de Paul Soup Kitchen.

“When this (the pandemic) all started, I called Sister Paula and asked, ‘What are you going to do?'”

Her reply was, “I’m going to continue to serve them,'” Sheetz said. “She has a passion to serve. I give her a lot of credit. The community has really rallied around her. Our distributor (for the Sheetz Corp.) tries to help her out. People go to her, not just for food, but for support. She helps them have a true sense of community.”

He added, “I guarantee she will not run out of food.”

Another strong supporter of the food kitchen is state Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair.

Ward has worked as a volunteer, and despite her duties in the Senate, she still makes time to serve meals.

“Sister Paula and Sister Pauline have been feeding people in Blair County for many years. They have been fortunate to always have the support of the community because the community knows that she does a great job,” Ward said. “It’s an all-volunteer crew that helps in the soup kitchen and they do it to serve others with a spirit of love and respect. It’s a very special place doing God’s work.”

Mutual respect

“This is not a one-man show,” Sister Paula said as she talked about the support from the community. “These people (business community and volunteers) to this day have gone overboard. It’s phenomenal. I’ve been so blessed they care. This community here, as far as I am concerned, they have made this ministry.”

Of the patrons, she said, “They trust us.”

Throughout the years, the soup kitchen has served an average of about 150 people a day, but during the pandemic the numbers have risen to more than 200 daily.

On Good Friday, when Easter baskets for the children were distributed, the soup kitchen served more than 300 meals, but that wasn’t enough to satisfy the demand.

That development frustrated Sister Paula and her volunteers.

She said she sometimes talks to the people in the soup kitchen, and she spoke of a message she gave them one day, talking about “how blessed we are.”

As the patrons ate, she told them: “You and I don’t have a lot of worldly goods, but we have the greatest gift — people who care about us.”

She preaches kindness.

“We have helped (the patrons) by treating them kindly and they are then kind to each other and that is what we are trying to do,” she said.

Sister Paula’s attitude is reflected in many of the volunteers.

Retired nurses Bernie and Mary Ann Sutusky have been working at the soup kitchen almost since the beginning 28 years ago.

They help with the cooking and packing of meals on a daily basis.

Mary Ann said she and her sister began volunteering on their days off from the hospital. Upon retirement, they volunteered five days a week.

Sister Paula now makes them take a day off each week.

“I feel fortunate I can give my time to help. People are really hurting. It’s wonderful we have the opportunity to help,” Bernie said.

Mary Ann said, “It’s just so wonderful we are able to do this so the people can have a good meal. I’m so grateful (to be able to serve).”

Shannon, who is an out-front volunteer, said, “I’m so grateful and thankful I can do this. I love these people. Most are so appreciative. They love you back. We (as volunteers) are blessed.”

One of the patrons, Cat Palmer, was sitting in her car on May 8, a rainy, cold and miserable day, waiting for the food line to open.

She explained she comes to the soup kitchen on a regular basis. She said she likes the pasta on Tuesday and the fish on Friday.

She pointed to the soup kitchen building, a former auto-body shop, and said, “It’s a miracle. I think it is terrific.”

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