St. Ben’s Community Meal Reopens with Free Dinner in Milwaukee
After nearly a year and a half, the St. Ben’s Community Meal Program reopened to the homeless and hungry.
Free hot dinners served at the dining hall at St. Benedict the Moor Parish, long a mainstay of Milwaukee’s Westown neighborhood, resumed last month for the first time since March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced its way through the program to stop the most in person operations.
With about half of the people looking for meals and the hall is understaffed, Brother Robert Wotypka is optimistic he will see a slight increase as the news spreads.
More than 70 people stop there every night, compared to less than 40 when it reopened in early September, said Wotypka, director of the Department of Capuchin Community Services.
Yet “the city center is still fairly quiet,” he said.
Following:Want to help send food to those in need? The Stock the Shelves donation window is open in October
Leaders decided it was important to open the dining hall with the potential end of the moratorium on evictions, emergency food allowances and additional unemployment checks on the horizon, Wotypka said.
“We wanted to be ready when citizens and residents are more stressed about income, so they have that to relieve stress, and I think we’ve been successful in that regard,” he said.
KO Shaw from Milwaukee started traveling to St. Ben’s about two years ago and returned last Thursday because he learned it had reopened.
“I couldn’t believe he was back open,” he said.
During the pandemic, “there were times when I didn’t eat,” he said.
New procedures aim to ensure the safety of all
Returning customers experience a new routine.
When the dining room opens at 5:15 p.m., people filter into the room and sit four at a table, instead of the usual 12 for social distancing. And instead of guests walking in a line with a tray, volunteers bring them trays of food.
“People have been really cooperative,” Wotypka said of the new procedures.
The downside is that the newly renovated waiting room, which is equipped with TVs, Wi-Fi, and chairs, is not used. It was created so that people who arrive early for dinner are protected from the elements while they wait, instead of queuing on the sidewalk outside the church.
But Wotypka hasn’t been able to hire enough staff to oversee the waiting room, and executives at St. Ben’s want everyone to stay safe as the Delta variant rises in Wisconsin.
Following:COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations in Wisconsin continue to rise this weekend
The dining room operates five evenings a week, Sunday through Thursday, with packed lunches available Friday afternoon. It was previously open six evenings a week, but staff issues prevented it.
There is still uncertainty about what will happen in winter.
“We plan to make the dining room safe for year-round service,” Wotypka said.
Volunteers find work rewarding
The dining room closed in March 2020, but Capuchin Community Services staff continued to prepare meals for those in need throughout the pandemic.
Using a 25-year-old minivan, staff delivered meals to shelters and other organizations that had lost volunteers or cooks. On average, they cooked and delivered over 100 meals each evening.
For a while, while helping the Sojourner Family Peace Center, the ministry prepared and delivered 185 meals a night.
As leaders planned to welcome guests back to the dining room in September, they reached out to groups that, for years, have committed to volunteering one night per month.
There was the Shalom Congregation at Fox Point, which always took the second Sunday of each month, and St. Alphonsus Catholic Church in Greendale, which took the fifth Wednesday, and many others who kept the program going.
Everyone – religious organizations, neighborhood groups and schools – has agreed to come back, Wotypka said.
Some bands come from as far away as Sheboygan.
Many volunteers told Wotypka that they saw the meal program as more than just a place to distribute food. They find value in connecting with communities outside of their own.
“There is a gathering of people in different circumstances, people who may have different perceptions of each other,” he said. “I truly believe that we build peace just by being open and simply by all the people we bring together.”
Mary Ann Hand of Greenfield, who served food at the dining hall last week, typically volunteers there several times a year through her church, the Underwood Memorial Baptist Church in Wauwatosa.
“It’s very rewarding,” she said. “I think if you have enough you should give to others.”
Hand brought her children to St. Ben’s when they were young, and now she brings her grandchildren.
“It’s easy for children in the suburbs, like my grandson, not to understand the diversity of people who need food,” she said.
“Food is something that everyone needs… Without food you cannot solve the other problems that are out there,” she said.
The pandemic has affected the poor and homeless in different ways
St. Ben’s also hosts movie nights and provides washing machines and showers for those in need. Some who use the services are homeless, while others live in supportive housing or are in low income. The program accepts everyone, no questions asked.
Dan Townsend of Milwaukee returned to the dining hall for the first time last week. Previously, he had been going to St. Ben’s for about 10 years. He was shot eight times and experienced housing instability.
Townsend now has an apartment, but during the pandemic he struggled to find food.
He “did a lot of crazy things” to get meals and said it was good that St. Ben’s was open again.
“It made me feel full,” he said.
Reginald Adams has benefited from the increased assistance offered during the pandemic. A former homeless man, he got rent assistance when the coronavirus hit and moved into a two-bedroom apartment. He now stops in St. Ben’s for meals after work, he said.
“During the pandemic, they took a lot of people onto the streets and bought them houses,” Adams said. “It was a blessing. Good meals, shower, hot food, movie day.”
Each dinner begins with a prayer and announcements from Wotypka. Last week, guests were asked to pick up donated peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and veg after they had finished eating.
A man who asked to be called Lee was overjoyed to be back. Patron of the dining room for 30 years, Lee was homeless and also volunteered for the program. As a disabled veteran who lives alone, he said it was a chance to eat a nutritious dinner as well as a much appreciated social occasion.
“I entered into the fellowship of it,” he said. “When the COVID case happened it was a tough race for me. I really missed that.
The feeling is common. At the helm of the operation, Wotypka sees the impact that sharing a meal with another person can have.
“I know that the need for companionship, the need to sit in front of your brother and sister’s table, is also part of who we are and what we do as helping people who have problems. limited income, ”he said.
With the security measures in place, people sit at a distance from each other and volunteers no longer have as many opportunities to chat with them as in the past.
But a year and a half after the start of the pandemic, it’s a start.
Art sale to benefit St. Ben’s
Artist Tony Busalacchi will donate all proceeds from the sale of his art at Gallery Night MKE, October 15-16, to Capucin Community Services, which runs the St. Ben’s Dining Program and the House of Peace. .
Busalacchi will be hosting a pop-up art sale on the first floor of 217 N. Broadway in Milwaukee’s Historic Third District, from 5 to 9 p.m. on October 15 and from noon to 4 p.m. on October 16. For more information, visit gallerynightmke.com.
Stock the Shelves donation campaign
Stock the Shelves is an annual campaign of USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin in partnership with Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin that encourages readers to donate to help fight hunger in their local communities.
Since 2010, Stock the Shelves has raised over $ 5 million for Wisconsin pantries through donations from readers and support from community partners.
To donate online, visit feedamericawi.org/stocktheshelvesdonate.
For a list of pantries supported by Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin, visit feedamericawi.org/find-help/pantry-locator/.