How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

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

The Rewards of Volunteerism: From Spacecraft to Soup Kitchens

By Peter Wise

My first exposure to volunteering was at Ursinus College. It was 1958 and I was an immature 18 year old freshman. I saw a notice on campus about a volunteer recruiting trip on Saturday morning to the Pennhurst facility – about 10 miles from Ursinus – an institution for the developmentally disabled.

So I went there and saw Down syndrome children and I guess I was OK with that – they looked very happy and welcoming. Then I saw a grown man – a large African American perhaps in his 30’s - in what was a giant crib and he had a completely blank look on his face. I was repelled and depressed seeing that. I immediately decided I cannot deal with this reality and took the van back to campus thinking to myself – I’m not going back there! I’m not going back there. Needless to say, I did not volunteer at Pennhurst, but I have never forgotten the blank look on the face of that man in the giant crib.

After graduating from Ursinus, I was living your basic middle class existence, working at RCA in Princeton developing weather and communication satellites, living in the suburbs, raising kids. I was basically unaware of and oblivious to those living in poverty – they were just not on my screen.

Then, in the spring of 1985, 27 years after my Saturday morning trip to Pennhurst, a friend asked me to join her on a Saturday morning trip to Trenton to go to a soup kitchen called Loaves & Fishes. “The volunteers there are such nice people”, she said. Being a middle-class guy from the suburbs, what am I doing on a Saturday morning? I’m mowing the grass, playing tennis, whatever. But I figured I would do my friend this favor and go to the inner-city, down these concrete steps into this dining hall below street level.

And what I saw there, smelled there and heard there were things I had never seen, smelled or heard before. I was repelled and depressed. Riding back home, I figured I had done my friend the favor and that I’m not going back there! I’m not going back there. Sound familiar?

Well, there was no Shazaam moment, no burning bush, no great epiphany, not even a small whispering in my ear, but unaccountably, a few weeks later I found myself back down at that soup kitchen and the situation completely turned around for me. I developed what some call the “Third Eye”. You suddenly see behind what you are looking at. I saw that these homeless, drug and alcohol-addicted street people were my brothers and sisters. That feeling continues to be as vivid in my mind today, 27 years later, as it was then.

So while continuing to work at the RCA AstroSpace Center during the week, I found myself volunteering at soup kitchens on weekends in Trenton. That volunteering grew to include affordable housing projects, the CROP Walk for Hunger, Habitat for Humanity, transitional housing, delivering furniture donations on the weekend, etc.

It was an ever-evolving process that also led to many retreats and meetings on Social Justice and the antiwar and antinuclear weapons movement with Dan and Phil Berrigan, the infamous Berrigan Brothers from the Vietnam era.

The journey continued until 1998 and by then RCA had been sold to GE, then to Martin-Marietta, then Lockheed and Martin merged to form the present entity Lockheed-Martin. With all these mergers and acquisitions, it was decreed that the Princeton spacecraft product line would be moved to the Lockheed facility in Sunnyvale, California and I was given a generous offer to move with the business.

By pure serendipity, at the very same time, I heard through the urban grapevine that the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK) was looking for a new director. TASK is a Monday through Friday soup kitchen,

Now I had a decision to make. Spacecraft or soup kitchen? Should I take this risk? Volunteering on weekends is one thing but 40 hours per week is another. Long story short, I took the interview and got the job.

But I had to go back to school! The Board of Trustees who were my new bosses said I must pass the Food Safety and Sanitation, 16 week, three credit hour course at Mercer County Community College where, ten years earlier, I had been teaching courses in Mechanical Engineering at night. Another long story short, I worked at TASK from 1998-2007, during which time we served over 1 million meals to the hungry people of Trenton.

TASK serves over 3,800 meals per week, 200,000 meals per year – two and one-half times the population of Trenton. Fifty percent of the patron population is homeless - living in emergency shelters, abandoned buildings, under the overpasses, in the cemeteries in summertime.

TASK also has an Adult Education Program, teaching literacy, basic math, preparation for the GED; social workers are on staff to help with housing, drug and alcohol treatment, mental health referrals, and TASK offers many other crucial services.

Although certain skills mapped over from my aerospace career, by volunteering and working at soup kitchens I was exposed to many new things – sociology, city politics, fundraising, public health, the criminal justice system, issue advocacy, non-profit management, etc.

But through volunteering, a critical thing I learned about was myself and how privileged I am to have been born a white male in the United States to parents who valued higher education.

But most of all, and finally, through volunteering, I gained the “Attitude of Gratitude” which I think embodies what I call “The Paradox of Happiness” – the reality that the best way to achieve happiness is not to seek it for yourself, but rather to seek it for others, particularly those who have been less fortunate in their lives.