Soup Kitchen In Need of a Little Help

The numbers tell the hard truth: Amid tough economic times, 20 to 30 percent more people are being served at the Soup Kitchen of Greater Wheeling, while donations to the organization have declined 30 percent from last year’s figures.

But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Behind the cold, hard statistics are the incalculable feelings of whole families who must turn to the the Soup Kitchen for meals in tough times, and the anguish experienced by people who never had to seek help previously. At the same time, there is happiness when families gather at the Soup Kitchen for special meals and activities, turning the facility at 1610 Eoff St. into the community center that its leaders envision.

Becky Shilling-Rodocker, executive director of the Soup Kitchen of Greater Wheeling Inc., knows it all: she adds up the figures; she sees the faces of those seeking help and being fed and nourished by the nonprofit organization’s programs.

The Soup Kitchen served more than 10,000 meals in August, a record month for the organization established over three decades ago, Shilling-Rodocker said. The trend has continued into September. On a recent week, she said, “We had 257 on Monday and it just went up from there.”

Ten years ago, the number of clients would be 100 a day by the end of the month. “Five years ago, only on Christmas Day did we hit 200,” she said. “This (the current number) is unheard of. It’s looking like September will be the same thing. We’re very economically based.”

She related, “It’s always busier at the end of the month. At the end of August, we were prepared in a sense, but no way were we prepared for 275 (meals a day).”

Just as economic woes send more people to the Soup Kitchen seeking assistance, the program is facing increasing costs to operate, at a time when its revenue has dropped. “The utilities are eating us up,” Shilling-Rodocker said, citing $1,800 electric bills as an example.

Behind the sheer numbers, “we’re seeing new faces,” the director said. In addition to transients, the “new faces” belong to residents of the area. “They’re from this community,” she said.

“We’re seeing a lot of lower-middle-class families needing help than before. Our patrons are very diverse,” she observed. “People are bringing whole families in now.”

In addition, she said there is “a certain group of people we will see every day,” who gather for socialization as well as meals. “It’s the community center I would like it be some day. It’s slowly becoming that.”

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At the same time, Shilling-Rodocker said, “Our giving is down 30 percent from last year to now.” She added, “We never got funded by the government. It’s community-funded.

“We are an interfaith ministry. We used to be predominantly funded by churches,” she commented. “But we’ve lost our ministry support. I’m not sure why.”

A couple of churches still support the Soup Kitchen financially, but the number of contributing ministries has declined, she said. “It’s a two-way street. We can help them (the churches and their members) if they’re not doing their own food pantries,” she pointed out.

On a brighter note, the director said, “Even though we’re down 30 percent in monetary giving and up in numbers, some restaurants and our regular givers are still helping.” Protected under “Good Samaritan” laws, the program can use food donated by restaurants and stores, from special events and community gardens.

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Shilling-Rodocker’s eyes brighten and her smile widens when she talks about Cory’s Kidz and Elks Lodge 28’s “Just for Kids” dinner program. “Both of our children’s programs are funded independent of the Soup Kitchen,” she explained.

“Just for Kids” is operating with its fourth, and final, grant from the Elks Club. “We have to raise the money to continue” the weekly dinners for children and their families during the school year, she said.

“The building becomes a community building at that point,” she said, referring to the weekly dinners offered to families from 4-6 p.m. every Wednesday from September through May. After the Elks funding ends, she said, “It will be incorporated into the Soup Kitchen as one of our regular programs.”

She observed, “The kids’ programs really have grown. That’s a need. On Wednesday night, it’s a happy place. We purchase that food specially for that program.”

Cory’s Kidz, an independently-funded project, provides 177 children with school supplies at the start of the academic year and with Christmas gifts, she said. “We will need volunteers for Christmas to help shop, organize and also deliver. We try our best to match families with children they can keep throughout the year.”

In another effort, “gently used” homecomging and prom gowns are collected and given to teen girls in need. Coat drives are conducted, with 370 coats distributed this year. Household items also are given to patrons.

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A typical day at the facility starts at 7:30 a.m., when the cooking begins. Volunteers arrive between 8 and 8:30 a.m. and help prepare salads and sandwiches. Vvolunteers help with preparation, cleaning and serving; their tasks are finished at 1:15 p.m.

While the Soup Kitchen needs money and more volunteers, Shilling-Rodocker said, “We have dedicated volunteers and staff … There’s a lot that gets done every day with a few staff members.

“The place is clean. The food is good quality. We try to make sure there is an alternative – salads, lean meats. We try to make it so anyone can come here and eat,” she said.

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The Soup Kitchen is operated by a board of 13 members. In addition to the executive director’s position, the organization has a staff of eight people, with a total of less than 100 hours of paid wages weekly, Shilling-Rodocker said. “We hire from within mostly,” she said. “Most of our staff are patrons.”

In addition to seeking contributions from individuals and groups, the Soup Kitchen undertakes fundraising projects, such as a Super Bowl tailgate party for which “we do all the food” and soup sales in October, December, January and March, the director said. “It makes some money for us and people get to see how good the food is,” she remarked.

A new fundraiser for the holiday season is selling 100 limited-edition crocks that can be delivered for Christmas giving.

Reflecting on the Soup Kitchen’s ministry, Shilling-Rodocker said, “The community has kept us here as long as we have. We’re thankful. We’ll continue educating the community.”