On a recent steaming Friday when the air wouldn't move, volunteers from ESPN were hustling in the kitchen of Hartford's Christ Church Cathedral. If they noticed the heat, they didn't mention it. Trevor Brightman of Bristol, likes to cook. He says volunteering in the well-stocked kitchen is like visiting a candy store
The volunteers were preparing dinner at Church Street Eats, a feed-the-hungry endeavor at the historic downtown church. On the menu was a chicken dinner capped with a spectacular array of desserts including brownies and key lime pie. With seconds.
Meanwhile, roughly 90 diners played cards and chatted as they waited at nearby tables. Among them was Jimmy, the group's self-appointed food critic. He's fond of letting someone know — perhaps Deacon Donald Richey, who does much heavy lifting around here — how fared the fare.
Church Street is one of the few places the homeless and hungry can get a free weekend meal in Hartford. And for that, they can thank Rose Fichera-Eagen.
But call her Rose. Everyone else does.
Rose grew up at Christ Church. Her Hartford school system wouldn't allow Rose, who grew up with cerebral palsy, to take college prep courses. Her father, a shopkeeper in the North End, appealed before there was an appeals process, and then Christ Church's Rev. Clinton R. Jones stepped in. He told the family that if they found Rose a school, he'd find the money. They located an Episcopal girls' school in New Jersey, and the priest was true to his word.
Eagan went on to college —- first at Bard College, and then at the University of Hartford, from which she also earned a master's degree in public administration. She began working in social services for the state.
After retiring 19 years ago, Rose, who is also on the board of South Park Inn, a Hartford homeless shelter, noticed that every week, Hartford's homeless and poor fell into a particularly onerous crack. Most emergency food programs close on weekends to give their overstretched staff a much-needed break. On a few occasions, she'd be at Christ Church and someone would knock on the door to ask if there was food available.
So Rose made it her business to make sure there was. Eight years ago, the church started serving meals on Sundays. Business quickly picked up, and the program expanded into the rest of the weekend, and into clothes distribution as well. Rose estimates the church hands out as much as $80,000 worth of apparel a year. She began a literacy program, and through connections she still has with the state and generous donations, she's been able to procure medical care and job training.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that unemployment hovers around 9 percent in the Hartford area, right around the U.S. average. Break out Hartford alone, and the number jumps to 16.3, according to the state Department of Labor.
The need in Hartford is great. The recent addition of Sunday services in the park drew 43, Rose said. They waited in line. They may serve 150 on Saturdays and Sundays, and sometimes more.
If the poor will always be with us, so are Rose's volunteers. Even on the snowiest weekend, someone handed out food. Rose knows she's a tough woman to say no to. She thinks part of that is the example she sets as a woman in a wheelchair. "I think people think, 'If that crazy lady in the wheelchair, or that crazy lady who hobbles around all the time can do all this, why not me?'" said Rose.
On Friday, the people were seated, served, and sent on their way so that Rose could send her security guard home on time. Oh, and Jimmy? Thumbs up on the chicken.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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