How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

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

Ursinus Graduate does everything from rocket science to everything including the kitchen sink

As Peter Wise retired for the second time this past March, he reflected on a career change that surprised even him.

A former aerospace engineer and manager, Wise retired not as the “rocket scientist” he once was, but as the director of the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK), a nonreligious, private, charitable organization serving breakfast, lunch and dinner Monday through Friday.

An unlikely candidate to run a soup kitchen, he was surprised to find that as he nourished others, he himself was nourished in a deeper way. “While designing and putting weather and communication satellites into orbit made for a wonderful career, I learned things running a soup kitchen you don’t learn in the corporate world,” he said, musing at the recent Alumni Academy and Reunions at Ursinus.

Although he was a math and physics major, he very much values the liberal arts educational environment at Ursinus. Wise, who worked as a thermal systems engineer and manager for RCA’s Astro-Space Division in Princeton, N.J., (which later became GE and then Lockheed Martin) subscribes to the “left brain, right brain” theory, and noted that perhaps the other side of his brain needed a workout after a while. At the soup kitchen, he learned about public policy, urban issues, politics, fundraising, sociology, but “mostly I learned about myself. I was surrounded by people going through very difficult times. Witnessing these people in their daily struggles inevitably causes you to become more reflective.” He also had to learn to practice self-care, but found that after nine years, he was burned out. The average time for the previous eight executive directors of TASK was only two years.

In Trenton, the capitol city of the richest state in the country (based on U.S. Census data for average household income), and a stone’s throw from economically comfortable zip codes like Princeton and Yardley, TASK served over 172,000 meals last year which breaks down to 3,300 meals each week. Last Christmas some 1,000 people sat down to a fine dinner, in addition to being given a take-home meal. Since its inception in 1982, TASK has served more than two million meals. Under Wise’s oversight, from August 1998 to March 2007, it served more than one million meals.

In addition to meal service, Wise amassed 55 on-site volunteer tutors to teach literacy, GED, and basic math skills. As a result, the adult education school attendance has more than doubled to over 85 students. He created a computer laboratory with donated computers which provide Internet connections to help clients prepare resumes and perform job searches. Wise also initiated an on-site case management program in 2002 utilizing two social workers whose case loads became saturated the first week of operation.

About half the soup kitchen patrons are homeless. There is even an express meal service for the working poor to allow them to get back to their jobs. A patron arts program has led to beautiful and powerful works of art displayed on what seems to be every available square inch of the interior wall space.

“TASK provides a very different environment from what you might expect,” said Wise. “It is bright and airy and friendly; I tried to make it a dining room of hospitality and cordiality. TASK has an open-door policy and it is very important to respect people’s integrity and dignity as much as possible.”

Wise, as an advocate for his clientele, spent a fair amount of time testifying at State Senate and Assembly hearings, speaking to groups, writing newspaper commentary and “doing whatever I could do to educate the regional population about the reality of New Jersey becoming two societies – the Haves, and the Have-nots. All of this outreach was pointed toward trying to develop the political will to create policies and programs that would address the root causes of increasing poverty in our region.”

His wife, Kathie, recalled that on their first date, “he said he was going to take me somewhere, so we go to Trenton, to St. Mary’s Cathedral, down these dingy stairs, and to the weekend soup kitchen called Loaves and Fishes where he used to volunteer.” She was surprised, but impressed.

He had first gone to volunteer with a friend in 1985 but was turned off initially. “I am a middle-class white guy from the suburbs, an aerospace manager of all people, and I saw, heard and smelled things there that I had never seen, heard or smelled before. I left that day turned off and a little depressed. However, a couple of weeks later, I found myself back down at the soup kitchen. There had been no shazam moment, no epiphany, no burning bush, but here I was. It was for me a complete paradigm shift. I now saw these people as my brothers and my sisters. That’s not something that you earn; it was a pure gift. I am grateful that 22 years later, I have never lost that feeling.”

Will he remember any particular moment from volunteering on weekends and then later being director of TASK? “There were so many moments, so much love and affection from the patrons. So many sacred moments, too many to count. I did what I could. I don’t think we’re asked to be successful, but I believe that we are asked to be faithful to the mission. You can’t ask for more.”

After raising over one million dollars for a major expansion of the facility, Wise leaves the soup kitchen with very mixed feelings. “It’s the old good news, bad news situation. It is good news that the greater community responded and TASK is able to provide more services in the future; however, it is tragic that TASK services are so desperately needed in the capital city of the wealthiest state of the wealthiest country of all time, on the planet.

Now retirement is a new chapter in Wise’s book. In addition to other interests, he will probably still be active in the non-profit sector, “I know I have to be engaged with people, particularly people in need.”