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Volunteers Help Keep Manna's Soup Kitchen Cooking

Crystal Maldonado

April 22, 2011

It can be hard to make time for charititable work between your regular job, driving kids to soccer practice and spending time with friends and family.

But Hands on Hartford and one of its programs, Manna Community Meals, have a solution: volunteering during your lunch break.

The "Take a Break From Work" program runs from 11:15 a.m. to 2 p.m. several times a week, but it welcomes volunteers for any length of time to encourage professionals in the downtown Hartford area to stop by Manna's soup kitchen at 45 Church St.

"Because of our location, we started reaching out to the community and the workforce around us," says Janet Bermudez, Manna program manager. "You can come down on your lunch break and volunteer at the soup kitchen."

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Once at the soup kitchen, volunteers can plate food (before noon), serve meals and interact with clients (from noon to 12:30 p.m.) or help with clean-up (from 12:30 p.m. on).

Would-be volunteers need to register about a week in advance at the Hands on Hartford website, where a list of volunteer opportunities is available.

After signing up, Kim Dirschka, an AmeriCorps member who organizes the Manna lunch series, will send an e-mail confirmation. From there, volunteering is as easy as showing up.

"I have volunteered for other community projects but will have to say this one is very organized and very well run," says Manna volunteer Cindy Nadolny, who works at the Metropolitan District Commission in Hartford.

Organization, as well as the convenient time slot, has made it easier for Nadolny to spend her time giving back. Once there, she enjoys meeting and speaking with the clients.

It's good "having a few conversations and laughs with strangers you know nothing about and feeling that this might make a difference in their life," she says.

Alia Walwyn-James, a freshman at the University of Connecticut in West Hartford, volunteers for Manna as part of her urban studies class.

"It's been great so far," she says.

For first-timers, there's a short orientation.

"The orientation is probably just 10 to 15 minutes long, about how we do the lunch service and about the population we serve. We make sure that you're comfortable and aware of what we do at the soup kitchen," Dirschka says.

Then it's time to plate meals and get organized.

At noon, volunteers wheel large carts loaded with dessert (such as Edy's apple pie ice cream) and drinks (pink lemonade) to the center of the hall. Each client is served a drink and dessert, followed by the main meal (grilled tilapia and mixed vegetables, for example).

When the clients arrive, they are given a ticket for their meal. This ticket serves several functions: It promises the client a meal, it prevents second helpings, and it allows Manna to track how much food it needs and who is getting it (clients are asked to provide their name and birth date on the ticket). Only those who show up before 12:30 p.m. are ensured a ticket; those who show up later take their chances.

"We can't sacrifice taking away from tomorrow's food when people will come at the correct time then," Dirschka says. "But we do try to be generous and do second helpings when we can."

Manna uses these numbers to report to Foodshare, which provides the proper amount of food each week. This is meant to be a give-and-take process, says Dirshka, whereby clients give Manna its records, and Manna gives clients a meal.

After meal service, it's clean-up time.

Manna (which stands for Meals, Assistance, Neighbors, Nurturing, Advocacy) sees about 80 to 100 visitors daily and uses six volunteers to help with lunch. Though they've been lucky with the steady volunteers, the numbers tend to drop during the holidays and in the summer, says Bermudez.

If they don't get enough volunteers, "we make it work," Bermudez says. "If I need to serve, or if Kim needs to serve, we just take on the role, and we do it. We never shut down because we don't have enough volunteers."

Hands on Hartford offers several chances to volunteer through Manna, Family School Connection, Peter's Retreat and Community Engagement, all of which can be found on its website, handsonhartford.org.

"The soup kitchen just happens to work for people that have children or have other responsibilities after the 9-to-5 workday," Bermudez says. "They're able to come in during their lunchtime and do something give back."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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