You wouldn’t expect the average college student to spend their night serving hot meals to the poor and homeless. But for a select group of dedicated students, that’s exactly where they want to be.
Loyola students have the opportunity to volunteer at the St. Thomas of Canterbury Soup Kitchen. The soup kitchen is open on Tuesdays and Fridays to those in need in the Uptown neighborhood and is approaching its 39th year in operation.
Volunteers work together to prepare sandwiches, salad, coffee, hot chocolate and soup. Guests are able to take away two extra containers of soup and a sandwich with some snacks. Any leftover soup is sometimes taken to the assisted living center across the street.
“The food is always good — it’s usually great,” program director Jim Eder said. “But one thing for sure is that it is abundant.”
On a typical Friday night, between 80 and 100 people show up. To be able to feed all those who show up, the soup kitchen receives donations from the community and food from the Greater Chicago Food Depository, where an ingredient like sausages can cost 5 cents per pound.
The Loyola volunteers meet in the Damen Student Center and travel to the parish together by train, arriving at least two hours before the guests arrive. Once they clean up and don their gloves and aprons, the group gets to work preparing the night’s meals.
“The feeling of serving others makes me happy because it’s the last thing I do during my week,” said Loyola senior Maranda Archer. “It’s always a good way to end my week no matter how rough the week was.”
Archer started participating in the program her first year at Loyola and is now a co-leader for the Friday group with junior Michael Marino.
“[The soup kitchen] gives me a sense of place here at Loyola,” Marino said. “I really owe these people a lot for making me feel comfortable and giving me all these great experiences.”
Archer and Marino said the relationships they build with guests and other volunteers is what keeps them going back each week. The two work with Eder to delegate tasks and ensure food preparation runs smoothly.
Eder has helped foster the program’s success nearly every year of its operation. During preparation, he can be found directing workflow as needed but is most often overheard cracking jokes with the volunteers.
“When we get volunteers and they start coming more than once we try to make it feel like a home or a family,” said assistant director Lequietta Perkins, who has been with the soup kitchen for nine years.
Loyola students aren’t the only volunteers at the soup kitchen every week. Students from Saint Joseph College Seminary, DePaul University, high school students, families, members of the senior living community, mission groups and out-of-state volunteers also lend a hand.
New volunteers are required to attend an orientation, where Eder outlines the rules, helps the new volunteers understand what kind of people come through their doors and encourages them to try to get to know the guests.
The basement room is set up like a dining hall. Instead of a buffet-style food line, volunteers serve the guests.
First-time volunteer Loyola junior Paige Hesson said in her experience of working at soup kitchens, she prefers this setup because it makes every interaction more personal.
Marino also said this interaction encourages the volunteers to strike up a conversation with the guests they serve.
Archer said although she was timid at first and unsure of how conversations would go, she had great interactions with the guests.
“They’re all very positive, which is something that shocked me at first because most of them aren’t in great situations,” she said. “They don’t dwell on the negative things.”
In the soup kitchen, love takes the form of attention, Eder said.
“Our guests are not just our guests; they’re our brothers and sisters,” Perkins said. “We treat them as we would treat our mom, dad [or] any relative of ours. We are a soup kitchen family.”
The St. Thomas of Canterbury soup kitchen is located at 4827 N. Kenmore Ave. and is open until 6:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays.