How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Mission Possible: How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

It’s Not Rocket Science: Helping the Poor Become Self Reliant

By Peter Wise

He is an artist in motion. He has made running a local soup kitchen into an art form rather than a science, although his nature calls out for science. Still the scientist in him carefully tracks the number of meals the soup kitchen serves its clients. Last year the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK) served 171,724 meals. This represents an increase from 159,896 the year before and around 90,000 in 1998, the year Peter Wise came to TASK as its new director. TASK now serves nearly 3,600 meals each week to the poor and needy. And there in the center of it all is the artful director: choreographing the volunteers who help to cook and serve the meals, pitching for donations of food from area schools and churches, soliciting local corporations for financial support and overseeing the delivery of other social services to people desperate for food to survive and some help to lift themselves out of poverty. Peter, who in his sixties makes the job of running a soup kitchen for the poor look like a work of art, has only been doing it for seven years with no previous experience in food management. If you ask him what he did before coming to work at TASK, he’ll casually mention that he was a “rocket scientist.”

Peter graduated from college in 1962 with a degree in math and physics. It was an inspiring time for scientists since President John F. Kennedy had promised to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade. It was the era of the Cold War and the United States was aggressively working to overtake the USSR for dominance in space. Only five years earlier, Russia had beaten the United States into space with the Sputnik launch. Peter was inspired by the times and enthusiastically pursued a career in the space industry. The industry embraced Peter Wise and others like him: very bright, math and science proficient and energized by the challenge of creating something monumental simply for the love of science. It was the dawn of the space age and Peter wanted to be part of it.

Following college Peter went to work for RCA’s Astro Eelectronics Division, which was a spin-off of the David Sarnoff Laboratory. At the time, RCA was the pre-eminent leader in the design and construction of satellites and spacecraft, producing every kind of satellite: weather, research, communications, navigational, and earth response. RCA also produced the Ranger series which was the first U.S. attempt to obtain close-up images of the lunar surface. Working for RCA, Peter regularly traveled throughout the country visiting NASA’s various space centers including Cape Canaveral, (later renamed Kennedy Space Center), the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, and the Johnson Space Center in Houston. In the 1970’s, RCA’s product line proliferated with the growth of telecommunications. Its work centered on the production of communications “geosynchronous orbit” satellites. If you ask him, Peter is more than happy and proficient in explaining that a geosynchronous orbit is one that matches the geocentric orbit and orbital period of the earth. He will also describe in detail the differences between geosynchronous equatorial orbits and polar geosynchronous orbits. Suffice it to say, RCA, at its zenith, employed four thousand employees at its plant in East Windsor, New Jersey, and was the world’s foremost supplier of geosynchronous orbit communications satellites. Peter felt like he was working in heaven. He was doing scientific work with the greatest minds in the world. According to Peter, it was not only what they produced, but rather the scientific environment that made the job so special.

Peter was engaged in mechanical space simulation engineering to assist in the design of spacecraft equipment to overcome space related stresses. Specifically, he led a group that was responsible for thermal control and design. Peter gradually progressed from leading a design group to managing a large department of RCA. In 1986, General Electric, led by Jack Welch, bought RCA and immediately transformed the corporate culture from the NASA-like research and development environment to a business commercial model that featured flatter layers of management and business units that needed to be either one or two in the market or eliminated. As a result, RCA, as Peter knew it, ceased to exist but he continued working. Under GE’s ownership, the company made more money than ever as production and sales skyrocketed. As a well paid department head with a corner office, Peter watched and experienced two more acquisitions of the business. Martin Marietta took over his division 1992 and when it merged with Lockeed in 1995 his division became part of the newly formed Lockheed Martin.

In 1985, Peter, who was active in his church, was invited by a friend to join her one Saturday morning to help out at a Trenton soup kitchen called Loaves and Fishes in the downstairs dining hall of St. Mary’s Cathedral. He decided to forgo his usual Saturday tennis game to visit the soup kitchen. According to Peter, “I saw, heard and smelled things that I had never seen, heard or smelled before. I just was not prepared for the urban experience.” Depressed and repulsed by what he found, he resolved to never go back again. Inexplicably, Peter returned to the Saturday soup kitchen a couple of weeks later. “I don’t know why I went back,” he said, “I just did; there was no epiphany, no small whisper, no burning bush.” The second visit was altogether different.

On his return visit, Peter developed what he called the “third eye.” He experienced a paradigm shift, if you will, or a new state of enlightenment. He viewed the people at the soup kitchen as his “brothers and sisters.” Peter recalls no prayerful discernment or deep analysis leading to this change of heart and perspective but in trying to explain it now, twenty one years later, he simply refers to it as a “gift from God.” Peter began volunteering at the soup kitchen whenever it was open: the last two Saturdays of every month. He later became a member of the core steering committee for the soup kitchen and was involved in organizing a consortium of local churches to provide soup kitchen service for each Saturday in the month. He also began donating his time to other social concerns such as affordable housing and transitional living; the adopt a family program, and the CROP walk for hunger. On the weekends, he picked up donated furniture and delivered it to poor families in the Trenton area. All this time he worked on spacecraft and satellites during the week and gave his time to the poor on the weekends.

When Lockeed Martin acquired Peter’s division in 1995, it announced that the East Windsor operations would be moved to California. Peter’s job was safe provided he moved to California. He was even offered a pay increase. The offer was attractive and the idea of moving was intriguing since he and his wife both had family living in California and all their children were grown and no longer living with them. Still he hesitated accepting the offer. Instead, he stayed with the company for the next three years in East Windsor closing out the back order of twenty-six spacecraft. Peter was literally one of the last people to turn out the lights when the plant closed in 1998. After thirty six years of working in the space industry doing what he loved, Peter retired.

At the same time, TASK, the Monday through Friday soup kitchen was searching for a new director. His friends from church and those with whom he volunteered his time on the weekends urged him to apply for the job. He was interested but it certainly was not the kind of work he was used to. In August he was offered and accepted the position. He had given up the work that he loved in the space industry and traded it for a new kind of work that he equally loved—serving the needs of the poor.

Since becoming its director, Peter expanded the frequency of meals and services offered by TASK. He has also incorporated into its mission the eighth rung of Rambam’s ladder. Rambam was a twelfth century rabbi, philosopher and physician, who postulated eight principles of charitable giving. The eighth rung of his ladder was to enable another by helping that person become self sufficient or self reliant. This principle is the same as the old axiom: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Peter believes that if TASK just feeds people day in day out, they become reliant on TASK for day to day survival and they are really not being helped at all. The act of charity becomes, in essence, an act of violence perpetuating an inequality between the people being served and those performing the service. The poor and needy thus become dependent and reliant on the people ‘above’ them for their survival. Peter’s vision is to help them out of their impoverished circumstance and ‘teach them how to fish’. So, in addition to food and meals, TASK provides adult literacy education as part of its mission. From 9AM to 11 AM every day, TASK opens its dining hall for adult education in literacy, math, General Equivalency Diploma (GED), computer and internet skills and resume development. Lunch is then served from 11 AM to 1 PM. School starts again at 2PM and concludes at 4PM, when dinner meals are served. The TASK education program serves approximately eighty five students with fifty five volunteer teachers.

The education component of TASK’s mission has been very gratifying to Peter as some of the people who earned their GED have enrolled in community colleges with scholarship assistance. There have also been successes like the truck driver who relocated to New Jersey from South Carolina. Because he could not read he was unable to take the New Jersey commercial drivers license (CDL) test. Without work he became homeless and reliant on TASK for his daily meals. Through the TASK adult education program he learned to read, took the CDL test and is now gainfully employed driving a truck. One of Peter’s greatest joys is to watch someone’s low self esteem and sense of hopelessness give way to the excitement of a new beginning that comes with education and learning how to read.

Another element of the soup kitchen’s mission to promote self esteem that flows from self reliance is the Art Coop program. When patrons, volunteers and visitors walk into the dining room of the soup kitchen, they hear music playing but then see incredible works of art hanging on the walls. The art is created by patron artists—the homeless, illiterate, drug addicted and mentally ill people who visit the kitchen everyday to survive. Peter says the art “blows away the stereotypical view” that most people have of his patrons. “People who are normally treated with suspicion or ignored on the streets are now noticed for the beauty of their art,” he observes. With the music playing and art filling the walls, a “magical place” is created where hospitality infuses the dining room and self esteem is reinforced. Incidentally, an initiative was developed to sell the art. The sales became so brisk that TASK had to “spin-off” the Art Coop so as not to jeopardize its charitable donations tax exempt status.

TASK also employs two full time social workers as part of its mission to help people step up and out of their impoverishment. The social workers spend most of their time working on affordable housing issues, job placement and addiction referrals. According to Peter, the typical people who visit TASK are mentally ill with depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder, drug addicted on crack and heroin, developmentally delayed and physically disabled. Some have post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as veterans of the Vietnam War, Desert Storm or from the “war of every day street life.” Many are HIV positive. Peter estimates that approximately seventy five percent are African American and the remaining twenty five percent are Latino and Caucasian. They are usually chronically unemployed and homeless. Peter said the work of the social workers is “formidable but it is essential in our mission to lift people up out of their circumstances and into self reliance.” Despite the diversity of problems experienced by the people who visit the soup kitchen, no one is turned away. This non-sectarian private charitable organization maintains an unconditional open door policy for all.

Peter observes in frustration the ever increasing problem of poverty in New Jersey. He is alarmed that the meal count continues to rise in one of the most affluent, progressive states in the nation. Even more disconcerting is that it is increasing in the state’s Capital City in one of the most affluent tri-county regions in the country. “We are going in the wrong direction,” he says, observing that the result is the creation of a “permanent underclass of haves and have not’s” resulting in the emergence of gangs in our urban areas and such unnecessary costs to society as more prisons, substance abuse and mental treatment, and unaffordable health care. The societal problems he sees at TASK is a microcosm of what is happening across the country in our urban areas.

Peter does not question or analyze too deeply the path he took that led him to this kind of work. How one transitions from rocket science to ‘teaching men to fish’ must surely be more complex than “it’s a gift from God.” Is there understanding that comes from Peter’s formative years? He does not think so, but his Quaker leaning alcoholic father committed suicide at the age of fifty one when Peter was twenty-four. His mother was a housewife and a “Catholic zealot.” Peter was an overachieving youth who always did well in school both academically and athletically. He grew up in a rural Pennsylvania town never “seeing, smelling or hearing” the things that would repulse him years later in the basement of St. Mary’s Cathedral.

Maybe Peter is right! Perhaps analysis is too complicated an exercise in trying to figure out why he or others serve. Peter postulates that people give out of their own needs. They give the way one of his literacy volunteers gives: he comes to TASK each week from his information technology job because it is the “highpoint of his week.” Peter believes he’s there because he, like each of us, is searching for meaning and purpose in our life. Peter said, “That meaning and purpose flows from the fundamental currents of being alive and the basic principles of humanity.” At the very core of that fundamental principle of humanity is service to others, pure and simple. And so, for this rocket scientist turned humanitarian, his mission is simple and rooted in his faith, although he does not question it or even try to analyze it. He says he follows, the words of Micah chapter six verses six through eight: “He has told you what he wants and this is all it is: to be fair and just and merciful, and to walk humbly with your God.” In a moment of deep thought, Peter looks up and says, how breathtakingly “simple and correct” that is.

Life Reflections

Peter’s ultimate transition from the corporate life to a life of humanitarianism began slowly when he donated a few hours of his time on Saturday mornings to feed the hungry. He designed spacecraft and satellites during the week and for just a few hours on the weekend he helped others in need.

No matter how busy our lives are there are always a few hours to give. Have you ever given an hour or two out of your entire week to volunteer for a worthy cause? Think about your typical week. How many hours to you devote to your work, your family and other pursuits? How much time do you have left? Even if it just a little, can you envision a way to donate it to those less fortunate? Take a look at those other pursuits. Can you see a way, as Peter did, to forgo a couple hours of tennis or golf on the weekend for something infinitely more important—serving the needs of your “brothers and sisters”?

As stated in the story, Rambam was a twelfth century rabbi who set forth eight principles of charitable giving. The eight rungs of Rambam’s ladder represent an ordering of principles from least favorable to most favorable in terms of how one gives to others.. The eight rungs are:

  1. The person who gives reluctantly and with regret.
  2. The person who gives graciously, but less than one should.
  3. The person who gives what one should, but only after being asked.
  4. The person who gives before being asked.
  5. The person who gives without knowing to whom one gives, although the recipient knows the identity of the donor.
  6. The person who gives without making his or her identity known.
  7. The person who gives without knowing to whom he or she gives. The recipient does not know from whom he or she receives.
  8. The person who helps another to support himself/herself by a gift or a loan or by finding employment for that person, thus helping that person to become self-sufficient.

Think about where your charitable giving, in terms of money or your time, falls on the ladder. The goal is to attain the highest rung of favorability: enabling the recipient to become self-reliant; helping him or her out of their circumstance of impoverishment. Where are you on the ladder? Where would you like to be? Plan your strategy to move up the ladder to the eighth rung.

The eighth rung of Rambam’s ladder is equivalent to the old axiom: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Peter and the staff of TASK use this axiom to fixate their mission on more than serving meals to the hungry. They developed an adult education initiative to teach people to read, to do math, to work effectively with computers and to attend to the social service needs of their lives. For the teachers who participate in the program, their work is the highpoint of their week.

Have you ever donated your time to teach basic skills to people who are illiterate and poor? How did you feel doing it? Was it the highpoint of your week? Did you find that your work inspired meaning and purpose in your life? Think about how you might inspire someone else to donate their time to teaching the poor basic skills and then act on your plan. For those who have not taught others the basics of literacy, math, or computer, plan but think you might want to do this. Contact your nearest soup kitchen and volunteer your time to teach the poor.