Students serve food and get life lessons in return

Hillel soup kitchen

Photo credit: Peter Tobia

Amy Smith, left, and Hannah Weiss chat with Clarence Briscoe during a recent dinner at the Penn Hillel soup kitchen.

Food is one of the most basic needs of human life. It provides nourishment to the mind and body, and while some of us live to eat, there are many people who struggle to get enough to eat each day.

At the Hillel Soup Kitchen, operated out of the Falk Dining Commons in Steinhardt Hall, student volunteers serve meals to the hungry every Sunday during the school year (except during Fall and Thanksgiving Break, and on any conflicting Jewish holidays).

Soup Kitchen Co-Directors Hannah Weiss and Amy Smith, both senior urban studies majors, have been involved with the kitchen since their freshman year. They say it has taught them about human dignity and treating others as equals. It has, they add, enabled them to “get to know people as people.”

Weiss, who volunteered at a soup kitchen through her synagogue before enrolling at Penn, says she saw a flyer her freshman year about the Hillel Soup Kitchen and decided to lend a hand.

“I guess I kind of got hooked,” she says. “The guests that come are very compelling. It’s a volunteer opportunity where you’re really interacting directly with the people. You’re not just in a room packaging things, or sorting or whatever.”

Smith says she went through an initial adjustment phase—being around new faces in new places—but serving the Soup Kitchen guests has been rewarding.

“That’s what keeps you coming back,” she explains. “I remember I had a couple of conversations and they were so good and I made good friends.”
Dinner is served at Hillel on Sunday evenings from 6 to 7 p.m. Volunteers arrive at 5:30 to make carry-out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and hot tea for the guests, and to place tablecloths, utensils and cups on the tables.

Smith says the kitchen draws volunteers from several Penn student groups. A group of middle school students from the Main Line Reform Temple comes once a month.

The kitchen’s supper guests range from a 4-year-old child whom Weiss says has come once or twice a semester over the past four years, to senior citizens. Most are local residents born and raised in Philadelphia.

“A lot are veterans,” Smith says, explaining that not all of the diners are homeless. That, she says, is a common misconception. Some, she adds, “just need a little bit of support to get back on their feet.”

The number of dinner guests ranges from 30 to 70 people, depending on the week, the volunteers say.

“Usually in the beginning of the month there are fewer people than at the end of the month,” Smith says. More come when food stamp benefits run out.

The diners are given a hot meal supplied by Bon Appétit, and are provided with sandwiches, a banana and pastries, donated by Au Bon Pain, to go. Weiss says the volunteers try to make the Soup Kitchen a “judgment-free zone.”

“I think a lot of us, had we grown up in their circumstances, wouldn’t be doing any better,” she says.

The Hillel Soup Kitchen is part of a larger service provided by the University City Hospitality Coalition (UCHC) that serves meals on Sundays at Hillel, on Mondays and Wednesdays at St. Agatha-St. James, on Thursdays and Saturdays at St. Mary’s, and on Fridays at Woodland Presbyterian Church.

“The students at Hillel are particularly committed,” says Beverly J. Cowart, president of the 2010-2011 UCHC Board of Directors.

Penn Medicine, Penn Law School and Penn Dental also offer services through the UCHC. Penn Medicine students test Soup Kitchen guests for diabetes and aid with diabetes management; Law School students provide legal services; and Dental students conduct screenings.

Wharton junior Ethan Monreal-Jackson has volunteered at the Soup Kitchen every week since his freshman year. After being nearly homeless at one point in his life and working with the homeless in high school, he says he was looking for ways to get involved with the West Philadelphia community.

Weiss, Smith and Monreal-Jackson all say they enjoy conversing with the guests and listening to the life lessons they have to offer. Monreal-Jackson says he’s gained “wisdom” through his participation with the kitchen.

“A lot of the folks there have a lot to teach you,” he says. “I think a turning point, at least in my personal growth, is when I stopped seeking knowledge and started seeking wisdom.”

Monreal-Jackson says some of the regular diners, such as Joe, Herman, Kevin, Tommy, Barry, Richard, Herb and Marvin, have become his pals and he often stops to chat with them when he sees them around campus.

After letting some of the guests know of his aspirations to attend graduate school at Harvard, Monreal-Jackson says they’ve taken to calling him “Barack Obama.” (He does have future plans to seek elected office.)

Smith says she doesn’t feel as if she is doing anything magnanimous in the Soup Kitchen. “At least for me, these people are my peers,” she says. “I feel grateful to them, rather than they feeling grateful to us.”

Weiss agrees: “To think that you can provide someone with food, which is such a basic necessity, so that they can then take care of other things or have the strength to study or do whatever they need to do—that’s very satisfying.”

Originally published on December 2, 2010