July 05, 2006
It's noontime on a sunny Wednesday in Riverhead and church bells are pealing. In sharp contrast to the hordes of hungry workers heading out to fast-food establishments and restaurants clustered on Route 58, a steady line is forming behind the First Congregational Church on Main Street, where a free soup kitchen is open five days a week, offering lunch for the needy.
In back of the church, it's business as usual, and the parking lot is bustling with activity as trucks deliver food from Island Harvest to local service agencies. Bernice Mack, who runs the Open Arms Care Center, a program initiated by First Baptist Church in Northville, carries sacks of sugar and boxes of supplies into the First Congregational Church, where the Lunch Time Soup Kitchen is a haven for as many as 100 hungry men, women, and children.
Just days before, however, the soup kitchen faced the threat of closure. Cutbacks would have left the program without long-time cook Dorothy Robinson.
Enter the Kiwanis Club of Greater Riverhead, which provided the kitchen with the financial backing necessary to keep Robinson serving up favorites, such as chicken, hamburgers, and her special homemade spaghetti sauce.
The Kiwanis Club raises funds for such organizations through a car donation, in which volunteers put their used cars, no matter what the condition, to good use.
Through the continued success of the car donation program, the Kiwanis Club decided to financially support and assist local organizations such as the soup kitchen and provide mentoring as needed. In addition, the Kiwanis Club is hoping other organizations will come on board in the quest to help residents in need.
"This is exactly the local community service we need to do," said Louise Wilkinson, past Kiwanis president and current secretary. "As government cuts come down to the local non profit level, we need to take care of the locals. There is also a good number of children who come to the soup kitchen, and kids are Kiwanis' priority."
Funding for the kitchen from the Kiwanis Club kicked in on Saturday.
Mack, who started the food pantry and soup kitchen on Flanders Road in the 1980s, said the organization has seen some hard times, with the need for funding a constant struggle. After a number of incarnations, the First Congregational Church opened its doors to Open Arms. "We were supposed to be here a week," said Mack. "We've been here for 10 years."
Mack, who raised eight children, knows how to stretch a meal. And despite the fact that over the years, she has received little more than a stipend for her efforts, and sometimes nothing at all, there is a greater reward. "It's a joy for me to do this service for the community," she said. "There are people who are in need. You know the people need this — children need food."
Mack has seen her share of hard times, and can relate to the struggles etched onto the faces of the hungry she serves each day. "I know how bad it is," she said. "I know what it is to need, to have kids."
Despite making only $3000 one year, Mack and her husband were never deemed eligible for welfare, and times were lean, with Mack working a long string of jobs; her resume runs the gamut from stints at Central Suffolk Hospital, to day care, to picking strawberries in the fields for survival.
And just as Mack has struggled, so does the soup kitchen, which depends on funding from the Town of Riverhead and donations from organizations, such as Island Harvest and Long Island Cares to keep afloat.
"I want this program to keep going," said Mack, who vowed as long as she is in the area and able, she will continue her steadfast presence in the soup kitchen.
In the future, Mack hopes to be able to be able to secure enough funding not only to keep Robinson onboard as cook, but also to hire someone to serve food and help with paperwork.
Robinson, who cooks all of the meals herself, arrives at the church around 9 a.m. each day to begin preparing huge pots of vegetables and homemade soup and enormous platters of hamburgers and chicken, said Mack, adding, "She can really put some meals together."
Robinson, too, has learned life's lessons well. "When you have a lot of kids, you learn how to make ends meets," she said.
Mack looks fondly at the friend and comrade with whom she has created a haven for the hungry. "God bless her," said Mack. "Without her, I could not have kept this program going."
Together, the pair, along with the help of other program participants, such as Liz Chandler, have pinched pennies, at times washing all dishes by hand before the advent of paper plates. It has been a long road, but no one has ever left the soup kitchen hungry.
But to keep the program alive, said Mack, there are crucial needs that must be met. "We need volunteers and money."
To contribute to the soup kitchen, call 727-6943. For more information about the car donation program, call Harry Wilkinson, president of the Kiwanis Club of Riverhead, at 463-5811.