Note: As part of National Nonprofit Awareness Month, the Smithfield Herald is profiling a different nonprofit group or program each week in November.
Volunteers in the soup kitchen at First Baptist Church end the day tired. But the experience is always worthwhile, said Anesha Johnson, 73, who runs the program.
The soup kitchen began in 2001 as a free meal on Thanksgiving; by 2003, it was a twice-weekly dinner. Since then, Johnson said, volunteers have served 114,000 meals, all of them free.
“It’s the same people almost very week, and we love them,” she said. “They’re family.”
Around 1 p.m. every Monday and Thursday, volunteers arrive at the church annex on South Fourth Street to start cooking meals. The soup kitchen serves about 55 people. Volunteers also prepare and deliver about 100 meals to home-bound people.
But the soup kitchen needs more volunteers. Earlier this year, the program had to suspend dine-in meals on Thursdays because it had too few volunteers, Johnson said.
“We had to make a choice what to close,” she said. “It was a hard decision, but we felt that it would be best to keep going with the home bound as much as we could.”
To reopen on Thursdays, Johnson said she would need about 20 volunteers willing to help once a month. Right now, she has about 60 volunteers. Most are members of the church, but not all.
Johnson said people always feel good after serving a meal.
“You do feel a lot better when you’re doing something for somebody else,” she said.
Many of the diners are jobless or on fixed incomes, Johnson said.
“They need the meal,” she said. “What they eat here free, they’re saving that money. It’s the money they don’t have to spend.”
“A lot of these older people, if we didn’t feed them their meal, they’d probably have Vienna sausages and crackers, that’s it, or sardines, rather than a good, hot meal,” Johnson added.
Jean Simmons, 79, of Smithfield volunteers once a month and said the diners are appreciative.
“You’ll be glad you did,” she said of volunteering, “because it’s so rewarding.”
Joyce Wright, 70, of Smithfield said she feels fortunate to have the time to volunteer.
“We’re helping people,” she said. “And that’s what we’re instructed to do, to be servants. That’s what Jesus was.”
Dinner starts 4:45 p.m. with an optional devotional, and then guests sit down to eat. Volunteers serve soup, plates of food and dessert, and dinner finishes by 5:45 p.m. so volunteers have time to clean up. The food can include pizza, chicken, casseroles and ham, depending on what groups and people donate. Green beans are a staple, Johnson said.
Joe Crocker, 60, of Smithfield comes to the soup kitchen because he is on a fixed income. If the volunteers didn’t serve food, Crocker said, he would likely go without a good meal.
“It’s good food and good fellowship,” he said.
Georgia Joyner, 71, of Selma recently had heart surgery. Doctors said she should stay away from hot stovetops and cooking, which now make her tired.
“I come to eat and enjoy myself,” she said.
Albert Maceast, 72, of Smithfield wishes volunteers could serve more meals during the week. Without them, his option is to stay home and open “a big bag of weenies, eat two of them,” he said.
“I’m just glad to have something like this for older people and everybody,” he added.