It’s five o’clock at the Torres Shelter and both full-sized ovens in the kitchen are cranked all the way up. “We were thrilled when the new kitchen opened and we couldn’t wait to try it out,” says Rich Ober, a member of one of the 15 groups that prepares meals nightly for shelter guests. Ober and his team of friends and neighbors volunteer to prepare one meal a month. “We’re a little different from some of the other groups who serve dinner at the Torres Shelter,” says, Vanessa Klein, another member of Ober’s team. “We think it’s absolutely wonderful that churches and service clubs and companies pitch in to provide meals. But for us… we’re just friends and neighbors who saw a chance to help”. Ober is rightly proud of the group. They’ve been serving monthly at the Torres Shelter for eight years. They get together occasionally, but mostly they plan their meals and coordinate their work via email.
Kate McCarthy explains their process this way: “Someone will come up with a menu idea and then we just start divvying up assignments. Several households will share in purchasing and preparing the main dish, another will make a huge fruit salad or some such, another will buy drinks, and it all seems to come together for the group in the end. We figure out who’s cooking what a week or so before it’s our turn, then we’ll each shop for our supplies and then pull the meal together at the Torres Shelter”. The group calls themselves the “5th Street Friends and Neighbors”, a name Ober and McCarthy came up for the group, and for them this is clearly a labor of love. “We definitely have fun working together, cooking together, and we like the idea that we’re contributing in some small way”.
Once the kitchen was up and running, groups like the 5th Street Friends found cooking on site to be part of the experience. “We like to fill the kitchen and dining hall with the smells of home-cooking. We haven’t burned too much garlic bread, so hopefully the guests get excited knowing that something good is in the oven or on the stove.” With members of the team certified in “Serve Safe” food handling practices, the team is dedicated to providing safe, healthy, well-rounded meals.
“We try to mix things up. We’ll do chicken one month, meatloaf another; we even did “Breakfast for Dinner” one month. It seemed to be a big hit with the guests. And we always try to include vegetarian options, fresh fruit, and a salad. But that’s not to say we don’t sometimes bring in a big tub of Costco brownie bites and we love making huge pots of spaghetti”.
The night that they served “Breakfast for Dinner” highlighted another source of pride for the group—youth involvement. “Our group is made up of single people and families, some young folks just starting out and some very active grandparents. We have quite a few middle and high school kids who are very actively involved. For “Breakfast for Dinner” night, we had a brother team, one 16 year old and one 14 year old, cooking up the scrambled eggs while another teenager was chopping fruit and another was setting up the serving line”, describes McCarthy. Like many of the serving groups at the Torres Shelter, getting kids involved is key to the effort. “We want the kids fully engaged with all parts of the service”, says Ober. “We love having our kids gaining this sense of commitment to working hard at something that may seem small but is critically important. We know they’re learning about volunteerism, but we’re equally glad they’re getting a feel for all the people who make up our community; we’d like to think that the Torres Shelter guests are heartened by seeing teenagers there at the serving line pitching in as well”.
Lily, a 14 year old who is part of the 5th Street group says that one of the first things she learned from serving at the Torres Shelter is that “a lot of the people are just like us but they are having a difficult time right now and need some extra help”. This sense of kinship between those serving and those receiving is echoed by other kids who are part of the 5th Street group. Cole, who is also 14 years old and has been serving at the Torres Shelter for several years, says, “My very first time I went there I just thought they might be mean and grouchy and stuff. But then I found they were really very friendly”. Cole and his older brother, 16 year old Ethan, were the duo who cooked the eggs for “Breakfast for Dinner”. “I feel that helping others is the greatest thing anyone could do”, states Ethan. This commitment to helping others seems to have taken hold in these teenagers. Another Lilly from the group, 15 years old, says, “Even though the whole process of making and serving dinner for a hundred people is tiring and a lot of work, I really enjoy the feeling that comes afterwards of doing something worthwhile.
It’s a good, fulfilled, kind of tired. I hope I take with me the reminder of other sides of life, and being a part of this starting so early in my own life”. Cole adds, “Wherever I live someday when I’m older if there is a homeless shelter I’ll help them out somehow”.
For these kids, as well as for the grown-ups who work with them, serving at the Torres Shelter is clearly not just about working to put together a meal. Lily recalls “one time a little girl – probably 4 or 5 – only wanted strawberries out of the big bowl of fruit we had so we fished around all the other fruit with the big serving spoon and gigantic gloves and the little girl was so happy to have only strawberries on her plate”. Ultimately, for groups like the “5th Street Friends and Neighbors” a smile from one of the guests and a connection with someone from our shared community is all the reward one could ask for. Ober says, “We’d love to see the need for us to do this to simply go away, for larger solutions to be found for these larger challenges. But in the meantime, we’ll keep cooking”.