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Soup programs strive to nourish bodies and souls

As the saying goes, chicken soup is good for the soul, and the Hollidaysburg Soup Program is continuing to nourish the community with a hot meal and a time of fellowship during the winter months.

The Hollidaysburg Soup Program has served countless varieties of soup to the community since 1999, when the First Presbyterian Church started the initiative. Since then, the program grew into a community favorite with the help of more churches and volunteers.

Program coordinator Eileen Snyder joined after the late Virigina Smith of the First Presbyterian Church encouraged her to attend one of the soup distribution days. Snyder and her church, St. John’s Reformed, got involved. Snyder said in 2005 the two churches decided to send a letter to other churches in Hollidaysburg, asking them to get involved. St. Michael’s Catholic Church and the Hollidaysburg Church of the Brethren joined, with St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church joining in 2006.

“And we’ve been doing it ever since,” Snyder said.

The program evolved throughout the years with churches cutting back from four weeks of meals to two or three due to the fluctuation of congregation numbers at all of the churches, according to Snyder.

She said First Presbyterian stepped back this year from the program due to the coronavirus. Snyder said the ongoing pandemic caused a few modifications within the program.

St. John’s Reformed Church kicked off the program on Jan. 8 with drive-thru distribution. Snyder said the church did the same twice last year with distributions in March and November.

“We have a small social hall and when we get people in for soup, it’s crowded,” Snyder explained. “In fact, sometimes there are people standing in line waiting for somebody to get up and leave.”

Snyder said St. John’s has the smallest social room of the participating churches, comfortably seating 80. Each participating church is making its own format decision, according to Snyder.

“We decided it wasn’t a good choice for safety sake,” she said.

Snyder explained that those who are in financial need attend the program, but also seniors who are in need of fellowship. She said it was hard to adapt the program but felt it was the right choice for the church and those who participate in the program.

“They can drive-thru without a lot of contact,” she said. “Hopefully we can keep COVID-19 numbers down but still do community outreach and supply the needs of the community.”

Like last year, Snyder said she puts out a sign listing the available soups — including the ever-popular chicken noodle — and volunteers deliver the requested soups right to the driver’s window. Snyder said there is a two-quart or four-pint soup and one loaf of bread limit per car because they often run out.

Individual volunteers donate the bread, ingredients and their time to make the soups, while the church spends some money on supplies like the plastic to-go containers for this year’s distribution. Proceeds from the freewill offering go toward the supplies, but Snyder said it is not mandatory to donate.

“We welcome anything we get and we just are happy that we can provide this service for the community,” Snyder said.

The ‘Soup Guru’

St. Michael’s continues soup and fellowship tradition.

Rita Pompa is a member of St. Michael’s Parish who loves to cook. After the church’s previous soup program director retired, Pompa was asked if she would be willing to take over and coordinate. She and her husband, Joe, decided to answer the call.

“We are a team,” Pompa said.

Pompa said her husband acts as the “soup guru,” while she spends time setting up the social hall and coordinating volunteers and dessert coverage. The duo have been involved in the Hollidaysburg Soup Program for about eight to 10 years, she said.

Pompa said the soup program outreach has blossomed into a social event at St. Michael’s. With eight different types of soup and an open dessert table, Pompa said the church is hosting in-person dining to fulfill the community’s needs of fellowship.

“We hope it gets people out; we hope it brings people together,” she said.

Volunteers who participate in St. Michael’s meals include those from the church but also other churches, bridge clubs and bowling teams. Pompa said the soup meals are a great way to fulfill service hours for confirmation class members or anyone else who may need community service hours.

“It’s an awesome way for them to gain their hours,” she said.

Pompa encouraged the community to come out for the event, noting that there’s enough food for everyone.

“If somebody wants to have a bowl from every single one of those pots of soup, they’re very welcome to do that,” Pompa said.

Other participating churches include Hollidaysburg Church of the Brethren, which will host two Soup Saturdays in a drive-thru distribution, according to its website. St. Mary Roman Catholic Church will host its distribution in-person, according to the church office.

St. Luke’s feeds Altoona

Outside of the Hollidaysburg Soup Program, there are other churches and community organizations that host food distributions and meals. Other churches in the area offer free bag lunches, like Providence Presbyterian Church in Altoona, which is offering a hot dog, soup, dessert and fruit on Saturday, Jan. 15, via drive-thru from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Churches and organizations list these free meals and events in the Religion section, which is published on Fridays in the Mirror. St Luke’s Episocopal Church hosts a food pantry once a month.

The program started when Woody Pyeatt and his wife moved from Texas to Altoona to be closer to family, he joined St. Luke’s Episocopal Church. Pyeatt said St. Luke’s congregation is small but has a big calling to reach out and help their community. The church itself is located in Altoona at Eighth Avenue and 13th Street, with many neighbors who need resources, Pyeatt explained. Wanting to get involved, he approached the church and asked if they could start a food pantry.

“I’d always wanted to do something like a food pantry, and they said, ‘Sure, go ahead.'” Pyeatt, who serves as junior warden at St. Luke’s, said.

Volunteers at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church host a monthly food distribution for anyone in the community who needs assistance. Volunteers previously held in-person “shopping” experiences inside the church’s pantry but are now connecting with those in need via a drive-thru event.

“With the pandemic and restrictions on our volunteers, we just can’t do that,” Pyeatt said.

Food distribution is usually the fourth Thursday of the month, but it can vary depending on holidays or special events, according to Pyeatt. The distribution dates for 2022 are: Jan. 27, Feb. 24, March 24, April 28, May 26, June 23, July 28, Aug. 25, Sept. 29, Oct. 27, Nov. 17 and Dec. 15.

The collection and distribution of food is volunteer-based, as the church does not officially fund the program.

“We have a number of volunteers who step up and take charge of things,” Pyeatt said.

People buy and collect carloads of dry and canned goods to donate. The pantry also collects some cold items like milk, cheese, eggs, frozen meat and produce when it is in season. Pyeatt said the pantry is funded by individuals, other churches and organizations that want to help.

The Central Pennsylvania Food Bank is the primary source of food, Pyeatt said. The types of food provided vary during the year, but St. Luke’s supplements what they can afford to purchase at a low price. If produce cannot be given away or if the pantry has leftovers that no one is able to take, the food goes to a local farmer to feed pigs.

Pyeatt said the pantry has been blessed with an ever growing volunteer list, with support from Penn State Altoona student groups and other churches.

Volunteers needed

“We’re always looking for volunteers,” Pyeatt said, adding that interested individuals can call the church or show up at food distribution. Some who get food from the pantry also donate their time through volunteering at the distribution. “They need the food assistance but they also want to help,” Pyeatt said.

The small but mighty congregation works to give as much as they can. Pyeatt said they have devoted a lot of the building to the project, adding refrigerators, freezers and shelves at low cost. Donations fill the shelves each month before distribution day, he said, noting the generosity of the community.

Once distribution day arrives, volunteers prepare family size boxes for one, two and four, with the ability to combine the boxes to meet any need. Each box is a one-of-a-kind variety, Pyeatt said. “If we have a lot of food, we give out a lot of food,” he said.

“Every month after we’ve done our distribution I look at the shelves and say, ‘Oh boy, that’s empty.’ And by the time it’s time to do the next one, they’re full again,” Pyeatt said.

The pantry serves 60-70 families a month, which Pyeatt said averages about 120 people. “It varies quite a lot, month-to-month depending on the weather and the economy,” he said.

Pyeatt said he’s been told that as much as 40% of Blair County experiences food insecurity. Feeding America estimated in 2017 that 18.4% of children in the county are food insecure.

To gain access to the food distribution, families need to bring photo IDs and proof of residence for anyone over 18, and birth certificates for children. Pyeatt said once they are in the system, they will not need to bring the documents again until July 28.

The information is used to keep record so the pantry can meet guidelines set by the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank and state and federal government. In the future, Pyeatt wants to expand the distribution to twice a month but said the pantry needs to build up more volunteers. Until then, the St. Luke’s Food Pantry will be out on the last Thursday of the month, except around the holidays, from 2-5:30 p.m.

“It is and continues to be a great blessing for us who do it. We always say those people who come and get food from us are giving. We’re giving them a blessing, and they’re giving us a blessing. It’s wonderful,” he said.

How to get in touch with local programs

The Hollidaysburg Soup Program distributions are from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at:

— St. John’s Reformed Church, 906 Maple Ave. — Jan. 15.

— Hollidaysburg Church of the Brethren, Penn and Hawthorne streets — Jan. 22 and 29.

— St. Mary Catholic Church, Mulberry and Clark Streets — Feb. 5 and 12.

— St. Michael Catholic Church, Montgomery and Spruce streets — Feb. 19, 26 and March 5.

In Altoona, St. Luke’s Food Pantry distributions are generally on the last Thursday of each month. The event is drive-thru, but those on foot can also attend if they wear a mask. More information is available on the church website or Facebook page, or call the St. Luke’s at 814-942-1372.; leave a message and calls will be returned.

For more information or to see which church is offering soup on Saturday, check the Spiritual Notes in the Religion section. Other programs are also listed in the spiritual notes weekly.

If an individual or family is in need of immediate assistance, call PA 211 or text your zip code to 989-211 to message with a live resource specialist.

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