I’ve known about it for years now. I’ve even dropped my 15-year-old daughter at its gate twice.
But it wasn’t until I wanted to catch up with Agnes Penny, and had to actually go to the Shepherd’s Table Soup Kitchen to do it, that I put on an apron and got busy.
Penny is there every Monday, from about 8:45 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. With her each time are about 15 sophomores from Cardinal Gibbons High School.
“It’s a learning experience,” said Penny, a long-time educator who was taught as a young girl to serve others and always has incorporated community service as a teaching tool. “It’s an extension of their classroom experience that allows them to see everybody through eyes of compassion, humility and love.”
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The scene itself is an experience. Teenagers and adults on the “Monday Team” chop and slice fresh veggies for homemade soup and salad, season and simmer bruschetta, bake and baste chicken wings, build sandwiches and slice pizzas. Others pitch in to chop and mix fresh fruit, wrap plastic ware in napkins, and ice and fill drink cups.
And there’s no time to waste. Once the food is ready and serving tables are filled, serving assignments are made for serving an average of 300 homeless or hungry people who rely on the Shepherd’s Table for meals. Before the doors open, there’s a circle of prayer.
“It gives you a new perspective,” said Brian Emery, 16, who cooked and served a hearty vegetable soup. “Mrs. Penny doesn’t treat the people any different than she would treat one of the students at Cardinal Gibbons. She treats them just like she’s known them forever.”
Brian learned something from people he served, too.
“I’d ask if they wanted one cup of soup or two, and they’d say one because they didn’t want to risk wasting it,” he said. “Usually, you don’t think about wasting food, just about whether or not you like the way it tastes.
“It just really changes your view on your everyday life and makes you feel blessed about what you have.”
That’s Penny’s intention.
As a teacher in Wake County Schools from 1974-89, Penny took students to the soup kitchen and other places for community service. Back then, though, she was only able to reach select groups of students such as the cheerleaders and the Future Teachers of America she advised, or the football and basketball players she borrowed.
In the early 90s, after stints at St. Raphael’s Catholic Church and at the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, Penny went to work at Cardinal Gibbons, splitting her time between campus ministries and teaching theology.
But as student enrollment grew, Penny narrowed her focus to “outreach with service” that allows students to get a day of structured community service during the school day, rather than being asked to sign up or forced to satisfy community service hours on their own.
Now, not only are Penny and Cardinal Gibbons students a familiar presence at the Shepherd’s Table, the Campus Ministry Outreach also takes freshmen to a low-income day care; juniors to a low-income senior citizens facility; and seniors have become a deconstruction crew for Habitat for Humanity.
Penny said she strategically chose projects in low-income areas, not only because those are the places that need the most attention and help, but also so students “know there is another world out there that revolves around them.
“And, baby, it works.”
Karsten Tyson, a World Languages teacher at St. Mary’s School reserves his days of service at the Shepherd’s Table to Mondays during the summer and on off days.
“For the two or three hours you’re there, you forget about yourself and whatever you have going on,” Tyson said. “Working there allows us to connect with the humanity of the guests in a way that we can’t when we don’t come into direct contact with them.
“That’s a perfect lesson for students.”
An echo of agreement comes from Griffin Gast, a graduate of Cardinal who is now a UNC-Chapel Hill freshman.
“It’s a good thing to do and I know it,” said Gast, who revisits the Shepherd’s Table with Penny when he’s home. “Learning about how other people live is an important part of service,” said Gast, 18. “You can learn about society by talking about it, reading about it in books and listening to teachers, but if you want a good, solid understanding of society right now, you have to out in it and be a part of it, right now.
“A good way to do that is community service.”