Soup kitchen meets community needs
Port St. Lucie | The drive-thru soup kitchen at St. Lucie Parish in Port St. Lucie serves both food and support for those in need during these challenging times. Many homeless or individuals living in their vehicle find compassionate assistance Thursdays at noon from a cadre of volunteers who provide food and other items for people of all ages and even pets.
For more than 10 years, Lourdes Alfonso has been managing the kitchen and supervising a core of 12 volunteers. “We’re just like Jesus and the 12 apostles,” she said. Everyone pitches in according to their skill sets. She does the lion’s share of managing resources efficiently: purchasing and scouting for deals and discounts, menu prep, packaging meals and performing any manner of kitchen duties. Shopping is done Wednesdays, and she knows what to buy down to the penny. Sanitation of the facility is paramount, especially in current pandemic times. She said she strives to keep the kitchen immaculate.
And it all began by simply answering a bulletin ad for a cook. The gratitude of church staff for this program and how well-organized it is run is attributed to Alfonso’s dedication and faith. Secular Franciscans joined Alfonso at the soup kitchen, and they give their time by assessing the community’s needs at the drive-thru.
“My priority is to provide the community a cooked meal,” she said. “We began with between 60 to 100 meals, then, it jumped to 150. Because of the pandemic, we are preparing between 250 and 400 meals a week. Nobody is going to walk out of here hungry.”
The kitchen officially opens at noon, but lines form in the parking lot long before the doors open. People arrive on foot, bicycle, motorcycle, wheelchair and by car, asking for prayers for different circumstances. Some are veterans, some come for homebound neighbors and many single mothers living in cars. Alfonso shared how one woman was moved to tears with the thought of her children finally having a hot meal. Many regular clients are served through the soup kitchen, and some leave their cars to hug the workers in gratitude.
“The Lord is sending what is needed to serve. Everyone goes with a blessing and a smile,” Alfonso said.
No stranger to adversity, Alfonso also serves the homeless by meeting them where they are, mostly in the rural areas of St. Lucie County. A three-time cancer survivor, Alfonso seemingly knows no fear. Speaking candidly, she said the Lord has put her in the place where he wants her.
“Port St. Lucie doesn’t have very many shelters. Many homeless don’t qualify for any assistance because they don’t have a home address, unless they rent a mailbox at the post office. Whatever process they are going through, I am their last resort,” she added. Her advocacy also includes teaching computer skills in local shelters.
By mid-morning, Alfonso prepares a brunch for her workers, then it’s time to greet the public. Each rolling cart holds 50 hot dinners. Included are church bulletins and calendars that act as an evangelistic outreach.
“There has been an increase in attendance because of prayer needs and the feeling of community,” said Jeff Schultz, who with Teena Dunn serve the line. They offer bagged staples for breakfast, lunch and dinner along with diapers, baby formula, baby food and pet food donated by parishioners.
“Even the folks who hold the soup kitchen signs on the street offer a sacrifice of service in the hot sun. They used to be walk-ins of the soup kitchen,” Shultz added.
Alfonso’s goal is to provide food that is healthy, using low-fat beef, fresh ingredients and painstakingly trimming the fat from lesser cuts of meat. She is always watching the timing of two 500-degree ovens at her back, pots on the stove and being certain that items like mayonnaise and eggs are never spoiled. Making macaroni and cheese is no easy task when it’s an amount to fill 17 commercial pans. She insists on quality and keeping the flow of work steady and is mindful that hot kitchens can cause dehydration.
“The emotion and love that goes into the meals is unbelievable,” she said, adding that the group prays before greeting the public. “We dance while cooking, then hit the road and let the joy of the Lord be our strength.”
Alfonso learned the value of a hot meal in her native Cuba, especially when Fidel Castro cut off much of the country’s food supply. A nurse by profession, Alfonso strives to be a constant to those in need, especially during hard times. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the soup kitchen was closed. However, Alfonso made sure that was the only time they would close.
“The people we serve during the pandemic has tripled,” Alfonso said. “Over 16,000 dinners have been served during the pandemic with no lack in supply. The volunteers don’t leave until everything is given out. Volunteer clean up is just as important to make certain everything gets back in its place. It’s a group effort.”
Father Mark Szanyi of the Conventual Franciscan Friars is amazed at the “wonders Lourdes can work with whatever she buys, which somehow turns into enough for 200 people. It’s a truly a ‘loves and fishes’ situation.”
To learn more about St. Lucie Church, visit www.stlucie.cc or call 772-878-1215. The parish also offers the opportunity for individuals to purchase special gift certificates for the soup kitchen in honor of a loved one or person in need. Contact the parish for more information.