St. Vincent dePaul Food for Families Soup Kitchen has served about 1 million meals since it opened its doors Nov. 1, 1991.
"It makes us feel like we are really doing something worthwhile. We all feel we were called spiritually by the message in the gospel," said Sister Paula DelGrosso, who has served as director since the facility opened in the former Piper's Auto Body building at 2201 Union Ave.
"Jesus tended to the needy and less fortunate. He paid attention to them. We are all following that message, and that is very fulfilling to know we are doing what is expected from us," she said.
(Mirror photo illustration by J.D. Cavrich and Tom Worthington II)
Volunteers at the St. Vincent dePaul Food for Families Soup Kitchen work to feed the hungry on Tuesday at the agency’s building at 2201 Union Ave., Altoona. From left are Mary Fenello, Tony Fenello, Sister Paula DelGrosso and Sally Canole.
(Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich)
Cook Nick Drost and Sister Paula DelGrosso work in the kitchen at the St. Vincent dePaul Food for Families Soup Kitchen in Altoona on Tuesday.
She said those who visit the soup kitchen, which is open from noon to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday, get lunch and a container of food to take home. She added that anyone is welcome to enjoy the free meal.
"They can walk right in. We don't judge if they need it. That would defeat our ministry if we try to judge people. We never know the situation the people are in," DelGrosso said. "You can be of any faith."
When the soup kitchen opened its doors 20 years ago, volunteers served about 35 people a day. Today, the soup kitchen usually serves between 180 and 200 meals.
"When you have 200 people a day, you know the need is there. If you come in and see the people, you understand the need and the conditions they come from. If you listen to them, it is like a haven for these people," said Sonny Consiglio, society executive director.
The soup kitchen doesn't receive government funding. It survives on monetary and food donations from the community.
DelGrosso called the support "phenomenal." She said businesses and community organizations, schools and individuals have stepped up through the years.
"When times are tough, the 'haves' in this community share with the 'have-nots' in a big way. That is a real blessing. We have a very generous community of people," she said.
Among the soup kitchen's benefactors are the Sheetz family. Sheetz Inc. had a new kitchen built and installed a walk-in cooler and freezer about five years ago. She said it was about a quarter of a million dollar project.
"Steve and Nancy [Sheetz] have been regular supporters of us over 20 years [as volunteers]," DelGrosso said.
DelGrosso said there about 80 volunteers who keep the soup kitchen running, including those who work in the warehouse, cooks and servers.
In addition to donations, three major fundraisers help with costs.
The annual Crabfest held each October at The Casino at Lakemont Park for the last 17 years brings in about $30,000 a year. The annual chicken barbecue held on Palm Sunday brings in about $10,000. The wedding soup sale held the Thursday before Thanksgiving brings in more than $4,000, DelGrosso said.
The Food for Families Food Bank also is housed in the Union Avenue building. Food from the food bank is used for the soup kitchen and some is distributed to about 10 area food pantries and other nonprofit agencies.
The soup kitchen is gearing up for its annual giveaway day on Dec. 23.
Members of about 400 families will start lining up about 6 a.m. that morning although the doors won't open until 11:30 a.m. About 100 are allowed in at a time.
Those attending are required to eat a meal, and then they will be given tickets for a large box of food, a turkey or ham and toys for their children. New clothing also will be handed out.
The soup kitchen provides sponsors for more than 70 families. DelGrosso said there is also a benefactor who gives $5,000, which is used to purchase $100 gift certificates so some of the recipients can shop for themselves.
Consiglio credits DelGrosso for the success of the soup kitchen.
"She is the driving force and has done amazing things from day one," Consiglio said.
"They depend on her. They see her as the mainstay and security. They look at her as someone they can rely on. They love her dearly," said Sister Pauline Kawtowski, soup kitchen associate director.
The soup kitchen will continue to be a busy place.
"We are grateful for the phenomenal help we receive throughout the year, and we ask people to continue that help in order that we can continue helping people," DelGrosso said.
Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.