By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — What compels someone to volunteer at a community food pantry, a soup kitchen or employment counseling and training center? Lots of things: a desire to serve the less fortunate, a longing to help out, maybe a wish “to give back” to the community, or less esoteric reasons, including high school community service hours. For a group of men from Visitation and St. Charles Borromeo parishes, it began as a wish to give back by helping the less fortunate, and grew into a lasting friendship.
St. James Parish in Midtown opened a food pantry in 1970 and a soup kitchen for the people of the neighborhood in 1982. The outreach was a legacy from the founding pastor; Msgr. John W. Keyes founded St. James in 1906 and served as its pastor until his death in 1950. He ministered to the poor from the rectory, there being no other place at the time. Bill Staggs and Mike Frechin grew up in St. James parish and remembered the community with fondness. Leon Keens and David Hooper were familiar with the area and its people. Several years ago, Staggs, who worked for an engineering firm, was laid off for a time, and decided he didn’t want to sit at home applying for jobs and waiting for the phone to ring.
“I decided to help out at St. James Food pantry,” he said.
St. James parish had renovated its 1939 school gymnasium into a community center in 1995. Seven years later, St. James turned over its social services operations to the Bishop Sullivan Center. Demand for Bishop Sullivan Center programs at St. James Place, such as job training and placement, grew so rapidly that the parish offered the agency its community center to house them. Bishop Sullivan Center operates St. James Place Food Pantry and Community Kitchen, located just around the corner from St. James Parish. Originally, dinner was served out of the church basement by parish volunteers. St. James Place helps the homeless and the working poor with food, hot meals in the evening, job counseling and basic skills training, and a coat closet, which sells warm coats at a deep discount to the coatless.
Frechin retired three years ago from operating heavy equipment and sand dredging. He too didn’t want to just sit around the house. Each month volunteers from Visitation, as from many Kansas City area Catholic parishes, work in the food pantry or community kitchen. Frechin decided to join that group in the food pantry.
Hooper works as a consultant at Good Shepherd Center, working with people on Medicare and insurance questions and problems. He wanted to do more for the underserved, and began volunteering at the food pantry with other Visitation parishioners.
Keens taught history and English at Maplewoods and Penn Valley Community colleges. He had volunteered at Holy Family Catholic Worker House and, when he began cutting back on his hours teaching, he too began volunteering with other Visitation parishioners at St. James Food Pantry. “The pantry was the meeting ground,” Staggs said.
The food pantry is in the old St. James community center gymnasium, and the paint on the floor is still visible in places. Visible that is where it is not hidden under shelves holding boxes and crates of foods, commodities and personal care items. The four Visitation men working in the pantry quickly became acquaintances, then friends as well as fellow parishioners. Not so long ago, they also began helping out in the community food kitchen and Bill Waris dining room. There they met Fred Witteborg, a St. Charles Borromeo parishioner who works in Midtown and found Thursday evenings to be the most convenient volunteer hours. Soon the five began meeting at Charlie Hooper’s, a Brookside bar and grill, for a beer after cleaning up the soup kitchen and dining area at St. James Place. There they share stories and a bit of smack talk, laugh a lot and apply mortar to their friendship.
December 8 was no different. As 336 people, both adults and children, filed through the food line, Frechin washed trays and silverware, Keens dried them, Staggs kept replenishing the serving trays and Witteborg, along with other volunteers, dished up hot dogs and buns, a shrimp and rice dish, coleslaw, and dessert. Hooper worked the dining room, named in honor of the late Jackson County executive, Bill Waris, chatting with the guests, picking up empty trays and helping create a cheerful mood. Staggs keeps a log of attendance at the food kitchen. The number of people served has steadily increased over the past year from 175 at the beginning of January to between 325 and 350 a night by the end of November.
The food was served from 4:30-6 p.m., and then all the volunteers pitched in to clean the kitchen area and leave it spotless. Laughter and chatter sped the work, and by 7:15, all was finished.
The five men met at Charlie Hooper’s and the laughter and talk continued.
“What keeps me coming back to St. James Place? The camaraderie is great,” Keens said.
Frechin nodded, “It’s great to be able to give back. Working there is gratifying!”
Keens said, “Yes, it’s very worthwhile.”
Hooper leaned back in his chair and said, “When you give, you receive. We meet such wonderful people.” One of the people the group met through St. James Place is Archie, “the mayor of Troost.” Archie was homeless for seven years, living on the street. He received help through the food kitchen and other St. James ministries. He now has a studio apartment, and spends much of his time at St. James Place, helping out.
“It’s really neat on our shift,” Hooper said. “We serve in the kitchen and we serve in the dining room. We pick up trays when they’re finished so they can sit and talk, especially on cold nights. They are so appreciative. We’re serving them and talking to them, wiping down the tables so they have a clean place to sit and talk. You know, I take that back. We really don’t talk to people, we listen.”
“We had 336 people come through for dinner this evening,” Staggs said. “More and more folks are needing help, especially families. Did you notice how many teenagers were in the line? St. James Place is on the Max bus line, so more people can get there.”
The five men consider themselves lucky to have found camaraderie and good will at St. James Place. “We’ve learned something very valuable,” Hooper said. “In the food pantry and the dining room we can’t categorize people. We serve all those who need some help, from families to single adult men, to young teens, lots of them, to prostitutes. We’ve learned to be non-judgmental. We are all God’s children.”
St. James Place director Doug Lagner said, “We could use more volunteers. At this time of the year, we always need more volunteers.” For information on how to help contact Mike Mathews by phone (816) 561-8515, by email email@example.com or visit www.bishopsullivan.org. To find out more about volunteering through your parish, contact your parish office.