‘A labor of love’
How a hot meal can bring people, volunteers, and businesses together
ALPENA — Around 1 p.m. on weekdays, the volunteers and director of the Friendship Room gather behind St. Bernard’s Catholic Church to start the process of preparing meals for the hungry.
It takes hours of work that involves sifting through food donations, getting pots and pans out, figuring out what items are available to cook, and then putting everything together into a nutritious meal.
As the only soup kitchen in a five-county area, Friendship Room Director Randy MacAulay said, it’s only natural for people to contact him wanting to lend a helping hand.
“Hunger is a pretty powerful word, and people want to help fight that,” he said. “It is a labor of love.”
According to MacAulay, the community actively contributes in a number of ways. People will call to inquire about volunteering. Others will find out through All Saints Catholic Parish and their church newsletter or bulletin. Social service agencies such as the Kiwanis Club, churches, and residents make the soup kitchen possible, too.
MacAulay said that, no matter who comes to help, every single person has the same goal in mind: to feed those who are hungry while having fun and working together. As volunteers, they can come and work as long as they want and leave when they need to.
“I’m surrounded by the kind of people that, when they make that kind of commitment, they follow through on that commitment,” MacAulay said. “So, in that sense, I become dependent on them.”
The nonprofit Friendship Room has its own budget that helps with procuring all the food needed for meals six days a week. However, the majority of the food comes from the public and local businesses. Donations are received from grocery stores, retail and convenience stores, even pizza outlets. MacAulay said people tend to donate turkeys during the holidays, as well as prepared foods, all of which is sorted and inspected before distributing to the people who come for meals.
Those in need can find more than just a meal when they show up. The soup kitchen offers on giveaway tables free items like clothing, toiletries, and household products. Sometimes, people can find knick-knacks donated from the public that the organization couldn’t put to use, or dry goods and produce when there’s excess.
On average, MacAulay said, about 80 to 90 people come in every evening for a hot meal, a trend that has been that way for the past seven to eight years.
“There’s too many circumstances that put people in positions in which food is a luxury, and so we try to ease that stress by not only preparing the meal for them, but also serving it to them and cleaning up after them,” he said.
There are usually 10 people who show up daily to volunteer, which, MacAulay adds, is enough to get meals prepped and served.
Two part-time assistants, Stacie Johnston and Mary Jack, are there to aid in the cooking and prep process and other tasks that need to be done to ensure another smooth evening of meal distributions. With only three paid staff members, the soup kitchen relies heavily on dedicated volunteers who make showing up to the Friendship Room a priority.
Most of MacAulay’s daily volunteers have helped for years, but one couple, Julian and Sally Skiba, both in their 80s, have dedicated their time since 1988. The Skibas can be found assisting in numerous ways, sometimes in the back of the kitchen washing dishes or separating and cooking food. Whatever needs to be done, you can find them there at least three days a week, keeping a low profile, ready to help.
When volunteers are short and more people are present for meals, MacAulay utilizes his backup list of people to call. MacAulay gets into a jam in winter because of the number of snowbirds who travel to warmer places during that time. Summer can be difficult, too, because of the nice weather and people calling in for one reason or another. Each season has its disadvantages, but the backup list of tireless volunteers keeps the show going.
Johnston, an assistant of MacAulay’s, made her 10-year anniversary working at the Friendship Room in January. One reason she’s stayed steadfast and committed to her job is witnessing the giving of the community.
“I feel like I get appreciation from meal guests and from volunteers,” Johnston said, “as well as the community of donors that we have, which is really extensive.”
The impact volunteers have on the people they serve is great, MacAulay notes, and does not go unnoticed.
A SORT OF FAMILY
When the room fills up with hungry people between 4 and 5:30 p.m. on weekdays, the regulars who show up find their friends and sit down to reminisce. New people who have just heard of the free meals blend in with the usual crowd, a sort of family that accepts anyone without judgment.
Greg Mousseau has been a regular for about a year. He said the food is better on some days than others, but he appreciates it all. He agreed with a group of women in the background, also enjoying their meal, when they voiced together, “it’s good therapy down here.”
MacAulay said he encourages the public to volunteer, as it’s good for “both your head and soul.”
“St. Bernard Friendship Room is open to anyone and anybody that wants to get involved to volunteer and feed the hungry,” he said. “They will be on board.”
Meakalia Previch-Liu can be reached at or email@example.com.