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Hunger Beat

West Town soup kitchen carries on through COVID-19

Since moving its operation outdoors months ago, the Providence Soup Kitchen hasn’t seen a drop of rain during its meal service.

There have been storms on Fridays, according to volunteer coordinator Roberta Shepherd, which is the one day a week volunteers are not serving meals outside the St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in West Town. And it’s also rained in the afternoons – just after their lunch hour – but never while their dozens of guests have been lined up to receive their food.

This ongoing stroke of luck, Shepherd said, feels like a sign of something greater.

“It’s like the Man Upstairs,” she said. “And I’m not a churchgoer, but he is watching.”

For nearly 30 years, the Providence Soup Kitchen – run by the nuns of St. Mary of Providence – has served hot meals to neighbors in need from across the Chicagoland area. In March, when COVID-19 began to spread throughout Cook County, the Food Depository partner was one of the hundreds of local programs that quickly adapted to continue providing needed food.

“Nobody is making us do what we do,” Shepherd said. “We do it because we want to.”

Shepherd, a quick-moving, no-nonsense worker, is currently overseeing the soup kitchen for Sister Darlene Johnson. Sister Darlene and the other St. Mary of Providence nuns run a home for women with disabilities, who are considered to be at high risk for the virus. Shepherd’s daughter lives at the home, which is how she got involved with the meal program more than a decade ago.

Roberta Shepherd, volunteer coordinator at the Providence Soup Kitchen, poses for a photo

Roberta Shepherd, volunteer coordinator at the Providence Soup Kitchen

Nowadays, a small crew of volunteers still prepares meals in the kitchen on the church’s lower level, but those meals now go in to-go containers and bags. Currently, the program serves about 50 to 60 people per distribution – figures are slightly lower than pre-COVID levels. Sister Darlene said that is likely due to some local shelters requiring their residents to remain on site to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Guests pick up their food from volunteers stationed outside, not far from the indoor space where they used to eat and socialize. Even though they cannot all be inside together, many of the visitors still share their meal together outside on the church property.

“It helps a lot,” said Gilberto Gonzalez, 48, who ate his lunch among a small group of men in a grassy area next to the church. Gonzalez was working at a restaurant before the industry’s mass layoffs. Living alone has also proven difficult these last few months, he said.

Gilberto Gonzalez eats his meal outside the St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, where the Providence Soup Kitchen serves hot meals four days a week.

Gilberto Gonzalez eats his meal outside the St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, where the Providence Soup Kitchen serves hot meals four days a week.

Providence offers more than a meal. It provides some relief from the isolation brought on by the pandemic.

“One thing is I’m in my house depressed, not knowing what to do, not wanting to go out or anything,” he continued, “but because I have to get something to eat, and it’s already prepared, I just take a walk or ride here and I get some fresh air, I get to see some people.”

Staying open amid COVID-19

It’s been an ongoing struggle for Providence to stay afloat during the pandemic. Before the pandemic, most of the volunteers were older adults who could not continue volunteering because of the heightened risk from the virus. As a result, the team is just a fraction of what it once was. They used to have eight to 10 volunteers a day. Now, that many people stretch for the entire week.

“Our volunteers on Mondays were in their nineties,” said Shepherd. “On Wednesdays, their eighties. All those people went home. And then you had people who were just scared to death.”

Providence Soup Kitchen volunteers distribute food outdoors.

As a result of COVID-19, the Providence Soup Kitchen moved its distribution outdoors.

But even without the manpower they once had, Shepherd and the current team are determined to continue serving their neighbors in need. The work has also given Shepherd a feeling of purpose during the pandemic.

“I’m just blessed, I’m just happy,” she said about still being able to serve the guests despite the pandemic. “They’re just so grateful.”

‘I love their food, I love these guys’

Damien Copening was the first person in line at the Providence Soup Kitchen on that same recent Monday morning. He sat by the door at least 30 minutes before it opened.

Early in the coronavirus pandemic, Copening, 43, lost his job as a line cook when the pizza restaurant was forced to close. Then he lost his apartment because he wasn’t able to pay rent.

Now he’s homeless and looking for work.

“I feel like I’m in a heavyweight fight and I’m not a heavyweight,” Copening said. “I’m losing.”

Further complicating matters, Copening said he lost his Social Security card and his ID card is expired. With summer’s end at hand, he knows he doesn’t want to be sleeping in a park when Chicago’s colder weather arrives.

Still, his eyes creased with laughter above his Chicago Bears face mask as he contemplated his hardships. He’s been homeless before, he said, and was able to improve his situation. He hopes he can do so again.

Damien Copening waits outside at the Providence Soup Kitchen

Damien Copening

“Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from banging your head against a wall,” Copening said. “It’s just insane with all the stuff that’s going on.”

The food at the Providence Soup Kitchen sustains Copening as he seeks employment and housing.

“It helps out well,” he said. “It gets you through half the day.”

When Dennis Broderick was released from prison in March, he learned that his wife had died of a heroin overdose.

“I wanted to die,” Broderick said.

He soon woke up in a hospital after surviving his own overdose. Since then, he’s been trying to piece his life back together.

Dennis Broderick at the Providence Soup Kitchen

Dennis Broderick

Today, he works as a cook at a restaurant and sleeps under a bridge. The Providence Soup Kitchen provides him with nourishment and some measure of hope to face each day.

“I love their food. I love these guys,” Broderick said. “They provide a great service to people who really need the food.”

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