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Uptown Parish reaches out and feeds many

St.Thomas of Canterbury's School and Church
St.Thomas of Canterbury’s School and Church. Photo Credit: Eninna Solache

On a chilly Friday evening, around 100 people lined up in front of St. Thomas of Canterbury’s Parish to get a home cooked meal. Volunteers from all over Chicago, scattered all over the school cafeteria for an evening’s food service.

St. Thomas of Canterbury’s soup kitchen opens its doors twice a week for the homeless, living in local shelters and financially struggling for a meal. The Parish is located in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood on Kenmore.

“We feed at least anywhere from 150, sometimes to 200 people each night,” said Rev. Tirso Villaverde, the pastor of St. Thomas of Canterbury.

Every Tuesday and Friday from 5:30 to 6:30, the soup kitchen is open to the residents of Uptown and anyone in need from the city. The Parish has the volunteers prep food, cook and clean up after every person who comes in.

“One of the things that we’re proud of about our soup kitchen [is] we try to give people a different experience,”  Villaverde said. “Rather them standing in line and having food put on there plates, as much as possible, we try to have them sit down and we actually serve them.”

Soup kitchen volunteers prep salad for friday night food service
Soup kitchen volunteers prep salad for Friday night food service. Photo Credit: Eninna Solache

A lot of the volunteers are regulars that have been volunteering for years. Lequietta Perkins has been volunteering at soup kitchen for the past seven years and has taken on the role as the kitchen’s assistant director.

“I used to go to this elementary school,” Perkins said. “I’ve been coming here since my sophomore year of my high school. Even when I went away to school, every time I had a break and I came home, I would come straight to soup kitchen if I had the time.”

The soup kitchen has one annual fundraiser a year that helps sustain and keep the kitchen running. Greater Food Depository helps with the supply of the kitchen alongside the people of the church, volunteers and others who donate to the kitchen.

It takes 20 to 25 volunteers to have the soup kitchen operate smoothly, and anyone over the age of 18 can sign up to volunteer. For those under the age of 18, they must be accompanied by an adult.

So far most of the volunteers that are a part of soup kitchen, said they enjoy it and come back every week.

“I love it,” said Nathan Russo, one of the soup kitchen cooks. It’s what I look forward to every week. My favorite part is the fact that we do serve them, so they feel important.”

Each member is in charge of preparation of meals, setting the tables or serving the meals to the seated guests. Every member that signs up is assigned a different task every time they come in.

“I’m the salad lady,” said Arelene Simko, who has been a soup kitchen volunteer for 13 years. “The commodity between all the people is great. I’m happy I’m doing something worth while.”

Gloria Feeney, a regular volunteer, said she always gets there early to “chop vegetables.”

“I interact with customers a lot,” Feeney said. “I work the window [when they ] come for something to take home. It’s very rewarding.”

Perkins said all the volunteers take pride in helping others and the people the serve every week to the point that it begins becoming part of a routine, meeting and serving those who are in need.

“You come once, you’re going to want to come again,” Perkins said.

Before Thanksgiving, St. Thomas had a drive for families who signed up to received Thanksgiving dinners. St. Thomas partnered with one of the local Jewel-Osco grocery stores to provide those meals.

Besides the soup kitchen and the food pantry, Rev. Villaverde had an experimental drive earlier in the year providing hair cuts to those who couldn’t afford it.

“We provided free hair cuts to the same soup kitchen and food pantry crowd,” Villaverde said. “It wasn’t just a hair cut, we pampered them a little. They got they’re hair cuts and shampooed.”

He added that sometimes it’s just the little things that make a big difference.

“You never realize how much a hair cut means to someone who can’t afford it, “ Villaverde said. “It just helps them feel human again.”

In addition, the Parish does an “annual giving tree” program. People can adopt a family who have signed up with the program. When the family signs up, they indicate the number of children they have, age they are and what the children want for Christmas. Then volunteers will donate to the families so they can have gifts for their children.

The Parish also has a food pantry twice a month on Tuesdays and Fridays that local church members, or anyone in the area can donate to. St. Thomas also has a clothing room that gives out clothes on most Thursdays that are donated or given by other organizations.

“Honestly it’s just a great place, and like a tight-knit family here,” Russo said. “Including the guests that come here, same people you see in and out. They’re all just great people, really appreciative.”

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