Monday, March 19, 2012

Food, Shelter, and More!

Nashua Soup Kitchen & Shelter, Nashua, NH
Suppose you found yourself in Nashua, NH, with nothing to eat and no place to live.  Maybe you lost your job and were evicted from your apartment with only the clothes on your back.  Maybe you were forced to seek safety from domestic violence.  Maybe you were just released from prison.  Or maybe you just don’t have the means to make ends meet.  Whatever the reason, you might find your way to the Nashua Soup Kitchen and Shelter (NSK&S).  There you would find a dedicated, energetic, and caring staff, working to “advocate, create, and operate programs and services that promote dignity and self-sufficiency for those we serve.”

Lisa Christie, Executive Director of the NSK&S
Nashua is a moderately sized northern city (population just over 86,000).  On a side street near the center of town, we found the main building of the Nashua Soup Kitchen & Shelter.  This small 3-story building once housed a barber’s college.  We rang an outside bell and climbed a steep set of stairs on the side to the second floor office of Lisa Christie, Executive Director of the NSK&S. 

The Nashua Soup Kitchen started in 1981, serving simple soups and sandwiches three days per week.  In 1989, Lisa was hired as the first executive director of the soup kitchen.  She oversaw the merging of the original Nashua Soup Kitchen with the Nashua Area Shelter (founded in 1984) after only 6 weeks on the job. 
Since then, the NSK&S has grown into a very diverse organization, advocating for low income people, and offering a full set of services and other programs.  For example, they provide:
  • Meals (breakfast 5 days/week, dinner 7 days/week)
  • Supplemental food (6 days/week)
  • Shelter (two shelters with housing for men, women and families, plus three transitional apartments and a 9-apartment affordable housing building)
  • Winter outerwear
  • Household items for those transitioning from homelessness to housing
  • Emergency financial support to help prevent homelessness
  • Backpacks for children at the beginning of the school year filled with appropriate school supplies
Lisa’s dedication and style show through in all aspects of the NSK&S.  She is a tireless advocate for low-income people on issues such as affordable housing and systemic issues that lead to hunger and homelessness.  As is true of directors of most non-profit agencies, Lisa must spend 30-40% of her time raising funds.  Combining this with her passion for running yields one of the NSK&S’s effective public events – the Annual Run for Food and Shelter.  They also host an auction in the fall, as well as numerous smaller fund raisers.
Carol Weeks, NSK&S Community
Outreach Coordinator
After learning about the NSK&S from Lisa, Carol Weeks, NSK&S community outreach coordinator, gave us a tour of their building.  The two upper floors house offices, and all available remaining space is used to store boxes of coats, a birthday shelf to supply presents to children who otherwise would not have had one, linens, small household items, and much more. 

In the basement are shelves full of the supplies waiting to be used in the kitchen or distributed to people who come to the food pantry.

The street level is where most of the action takes place.  In the rear left is the small soup kitchen with its food preparation areas, stove, refrigerators, freezers and food service line.  Also in the rear are a bathroom and an advocate’s office which also is used to distribute toiletries and diapers.  New coats are hanging on hooks on the side wall, free for those who need them, and a small library in the front offers books for anyone to take.

The small front half of this level is the dining area, where the NSK&S serves breakfast 5 days/week, and dinner 7 days/week.  The chef plans the meals and cooks, with help from an assistant and volunteers.  Occasionally, an outside group will provide both the food and the volunteers.  For dinner, families and the disabled are served between 4 PM and 5 PM, in order to create a more family-friendly atmosphere, and others are served from 5 PM to 6:30 PM.

The small dining area is licensed to serve only 47 people at a time.  When clients arrive for a meal, they form a line outside, no matter what the weather, and are admitted only as space allows them to be served.  This is undoubtedly a deterrent for some who really need the meals, both because there’s no shelter from rain, snow, or cold, but also because some people don’t want to be recognized by those driving by.  Sometimes as many as 250 dinners are served, so diners may have quite a wait.  Last year, the NSK&S served a total of 74,932 meals.

Fresh produce ready to be shared
Between breakfast and dinner, six days/week, the dining area is rearranged as a food pantry.  On Mondays, clients can receive a box of staple foods plus milk, eggs, and meat.  To receive a box, the family must call the NSK&S to reserve it.  Each client can come once/month.   The amount each household receives is determined by family size (one box size for a family of 4 or fewer, another size for 5 or more). 

Each day, the food pantry also gives away perishables (fresh fruits and vegetables, breads, sweet baked goods, and meat) gleaned from local grocery stores.   Monday, these foods are only available to those who are picking up boxes of non-perishables as well.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays, those with last names in the first half of the alphabet can come, on Wednesdays and Fridays, those with last names in the second half of the alphabet can come, and on Saturdays anyone can come.  The Tuesday we helped, fresh food was distributed to 108 clients.

The produce is especially appreciated.  Lisa said she’d received a phone call that morning from a woman who said that she’d been sober for 30 days, her appetite was returning, and she was so grateful to have fresh fruits and vegetables.

After helping distribute food, we walked to one of the two shelter houses with Anne Allgaier, one of the shelter managers.  She had come to the soup kitchen to pick up food for the shelter, including a cupcake to be a special treat for a child currently living there.

Volunteer student painters from
Nashua Community College
The shelter was a busy work site that day, since a group of volunteers from Nashua Community College were painting all the rooms as part of an alternative spring break project.  On other days, the students were scheduled to paint the soup kitchen and the second shelter.  The new paint will make this already cheerful and light-filled house especially fresh and clean.

Anne explained that when new shelter residents arrive, usually in the evening, staff members determine the services they need.  Simple food is available, as well as showers and laundry facilities.  They are assigned a bed, if one is available.  In the winter, the shelter will find places for everyone who shows up to sleep for one night, although it may be the couch or a cot in the living room.

In the morning, all the guests are expected to leave the house by 8 AM unless they have preschool children.   Some of the residents may go to work, interview for jobs, attend school, visit the Health and Human Services office to apply for benefits, or use the local public library, which is very helpful and takes a letter from the shelter as proof of residency.  They can return to the shelter in the late afternoon.  Most cook their own food at the shelter, although they can also use the soup kitchen down the street (and do so more often near the end of the month when their benefits run out).  They’re also required to pick up after themselves, do their own laundry, and share household chores. 

Anne told us that the women in the shelter do a lot to help each other out.  New residents see the longer-time residents following the rules, looking for jobs and attending school, and they feel more hopeful about their own futures.  When one person gets a job, it’s a big boost for everyone.  Also, the residents know the systems for helping low-income people better than anyone else, and can help their fellow residents figure out how to get the help they need.  Some residents have gone together to rent an apartment, others have loaned furniture they have in storage to someone who needs it.  Most residents manage to find resources so they can move to other accommodations within 3 months.

The NSK&S doesn’t try to do everything, just what is needed and that they can afford.  If there are others in the community providing a service, they refer their clients and residents to those facilities instead of duplicating them.  Other agencies help with medical problems, substance abuse treatment, domestic abuse counseling, working toward a GED, or educational assessment.

We found the NSK&S to be an outstanding, caring, well-run organization that’s doing great things for its client base.  Its major problem at this time is the crowded, difficult building that houses the administrative offices and soup kitchen.  They are working to locate a larger, better designed building in the same neighborhood that will allow them to upgrade their soup kitchen facilities to serve more people and allow the clients to wait inside the building.  They need a dedicated space for their food pantry, more storage room for their backpacks, warm coats and other programs, better facilities for the staff, and additional space for programs, meetings and other needs. 

We’re hoping that the NSK&S is successful in locating space to accommodate their expanding services, so they are able to even more effectively supply their neighbors with food and shelter and more.

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