It’s not just a free meal

Becky Adams

Kent Social Services works on dispelling

Paula Foster, food coordinator, and Rose Wardell, volunteer for two years, help serve food for Kent Social Services’ lunch on Tuesday. Kent Social Services provides lunch everyday at 11:30 a.m. and dinner Thursday at 4 p.m. It is open to whomever wants

Credit: Steve Schirra

It could change your life.

That’s what Paula Foster would tell you; it’s why she recommends her job to everyone.

Foster helps feed the hungry. She’s the kitchen coordinator at Kent Social Services on Water Street.

Paper windmills and fall wreaths brighten the dining room where many individuals, families, single parents and senior citizens make daily or weekly pilgrimages to receive a hot meal.

About 25 percent of Kent residents live below poverty, according to a U.S. Census Bureau rating in 1999.

In the course of one day, Foster and her crew dish out 85 to 100 meals and distribute groceries to 25 to 30 families.

Tonight’s menu: steamy lasagna, dinner rolls, salad and a slice of pumpkin pie.

But full stomachs aren’t the only concern here.

“We believe very much that we’re not here only to provide the client with food,” said Debby Missimi, director of food services for Family and Community Services of Portage County.

“We believe we are here also to cater to their dignity.”

They’re people, just like we are, who currently happen to be in unfavorable circumstances, Missimi said. It’s very important the clients are treated no differently than anyone else, she added.

Pantry coordinator Kathy Dunbar agreed.

“You have to realize that Paula (Foster) and I live not two paychecks away from eating here,” Dunbar said. “So you can’t look at people that come in here differently than you look at yourself.”

Foster, at first, dealt with what she refers to as “a really big stereotype.”

“I was one of those people that thought – what are they coming in here for? Why don’t they just get a job?” she said. After her first week of work, she realized it’s not that simple.

There are many misconceptions about Kent Social Services and people in poverty, Foster said.

“You think people are dirty, or they come from bad homes or they don’t have educations – and sometimes that’s all true – but, in general, it’s really not true,” Foster said. “People are just usually situational.”

No one who wants a hot meal gets turned away, Missimi said, including those who come primarily for social interaction, not food. It’s become a meeting place for senior citizens who might live alone. If they didn’t come eat lunch with their friends, they might not talk to somebody all day, Missimi said.

When Foster was offered a job that paid over twice as much as she is currently earning, she turned it down. She couldn’t leave her fellow workers and those she served; even with the occasional “pain in the ass,” which Foster assures they get.

People are people, she said. They can still be mean and hurtful.

In contrast, some folks are so humiliated when they ask for food, they are unable to hide the tears, Foster said. After having her shoulder sobbed on, Foster has retreated into the bathroom to shed more tears, thinking: God, don’t let this ever have to be me.

“It’s a real eye-opening experience, and it’s a real humbling experience,” Foster said. “It’s like one of those things where you go home everyday and you say, ‘thank God I stand on that side of the counter.'”

The workers at Kent Social Services stress they are not a soup kitchen.

When she first volunteered at the center, Beth Piwkowski, graduate student in library sciences, expected to be handed a ladle.

Piwkowski said she was somewhat oblivious to life outside her college campus. While volunteering, she began to uncover many of her stereotypes toward the poor.

On her first day, her supervisor showed her the register of people who receive donations. She wasn’t expecting the high number of children.

It wasn’t the older homeless guy with weathered skin and patched clothing that she’d envisioned. There were a lot of families and single moms, she said.

“There’s just not this cookie-cutter (definition of) ‘this is what poor people are, what poor people are like,'” Piwkowski said. “You have good people, you have bad people, and you have people that are somewhere in the middle – just like any other group of people.”

There are few dependable tip-offs that someone is struggling with poverty.

They could be your neighbor, Missimi said.

“It’s not that you could look at somebody and know that they don’t have enough money for food,” she said.

These workers and volunteers have learned to look beneath the surface and have been changed by what they’ve found there.

Contact features correspondent Becky Adams at [email protected].