ROCK HILL—On a recent Thursday morning, men and women lined up at 11:30 a.m. for the hot meal at the Dorothy Day Soup Kitchen on Crawford Road.
It was a diverse crowd of about 45 people, some with walkers or wheelchairs. A blind man offered a blessing at the beginning of the meal.
“God … thank You for getting up this morning and putting our feet on the ground,” he said.
Then the crowd received heaping plates of chicken and noodle casserole, cole slaw, green beans, cornbread, fruit and cake from four smiling women who were the day’s volunteer cooks and servers. There was laughter and casual conversation during the meal.
One man praised the homemade cornbread, “Best I’ve ever eaten!”
It was a happy hour of food and fellowship, fueled by the dedicated work of volunteers.
It has been like this six days a week, 52 weeks a year for the past 30 years.
The Dorothy Day Soup Kitchen started in 1986 thanks to the efforts of two brothers and a priest from the Oratory, the late Father David Valtierra, and two dedicated workers, Beverly Carroll and Catherine Sullivan. It was named after the social activist who converted to Catholicism.
Oratorian Brother David Boone was there at the beginning. He was assigned to St. Mary Church across the street at the time and said the kitchen was started because he and others realized there was no similar service to feed the hungry in the area.
Initially, the kitchen operated out of space on the main campus of St. Mary. On the first day it opened, volunteers were there but nobody showed up to eat, Sullivan said. The next day, a few people came. The next, a few more, and the rest is history.
These days, Sullivan said an average of between 30 to 50 people arrive for the meals. On extremely busy days, 135 people are fed.
Carroll, the executive director, said she and Sullivan held yard sales for the first two years to help fund the kitchen. Meat was scarce back then and considered a real treat when they had some to add to soup. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were a common menu item.
Today, things are much different. The soup kitchen is now an independent charitable organization that receives support from churches, businesses, and civic and school groups from around York County. They receive food from Second Harvest Food Bank in Charlotte and through donations.
A typical week’s menu includes turkey and dressing, salmon patties, and tuna salad. Clients are also handed bagged treats to take with them, ranging from cookies to fruit.
“We’re able to provide beautiful meals now because people in the area are very, very good to us,” Carroll said. “They realize the need. For most of the clients, this is the only hot meal they get all day.”
Free personal hygiene products are also available and the outreach has arranged for dental services for clients on the second Tuesday of every month.
Currently, the kitchen pays a nominal rent to St. Mary Church for space in its Bannon Hall.
The soup kitchen is an ecumenical effort that attracts volunteers from churches and the community.
Gail Stafford, a member of St. John United Methodist Church, has been helping since she retired from teaching five years ago. She was recently appointed to the board of directors.
“I love doing things for people. I love to cook and I love to see the smiles on the people’s faces,” Stafford said.
Sullivan, who serves as treasurer, said she thinks the Dorothy Day Soup Kitchen has lasted so long and been a success because it stayed true to the mission on the sign outside: “Everyone is welcome.”
“We’re open to everyone, no questions asked,” she said. “From the beginning, we said we were going to serve a nourishing hot meal in a safe friendly environment. That’s all we have ever done and all we want to do.”
Featured photo: Miscellany/Christina Lee Knauss: Linda Neely (left) and Gail Stafford put cornbread on a plate for a client at the Dorothy Day Soup Kitchen in Rock Hill.