A Good Day at the Soup Kitchen

Thanksgiving Features

By Rena Nasar

When Shanae Johnson’s alarm clock went off at 5:30 a.m., she jumped out of bed and started getting ready. Johnson had been looking forward to this day all year, and there was no way she was going to be late. An hour later, after parking her car, she walked through the church doors, put on an apron, a hairnet and gloves, and took a deep, anxious breath as she started peeling potatoes. At precisely 7 a.m, the preparation began.

That Wednesday, Nov. 23, the Greenpoint Church Soup Kitchen was bustling with volunteers like Johnson, who together prepared a Thanksgiving meal for 70 people, and packed 500 bags of groceries to give out.

“This holiday is all about family, friends, and good food,” Johnson, 26, says about why she volunteered. “The soup kitchen provides all three.” She adds, “Nobody can do everything, but everyone can do something. This is my something.”

This was her fourth year of volunteering at the soup kitchen on Thanksgiving weekend. “People think of volunteering as a burden, but the benefits outweigh the cost,” she says.

Johnson’s day began with a great deal of hard work. The volunteers prepared all of the traditional Thanksgiving foods—turkey, stuffing and potatoes, as well as collard greens. Johnson was in charge of the potatoes, and she added a secret ingredient her mother uses to make the potatoes extra sweet: cinnamon. “All of the volunteers add their own little family touches to the food,” another volunteer says. “It makes it much more personal.”

The aromas from all the food filled the air as the excited and hungry guests arrived. The volunteers set up tables and chairs with table cloths and plates, then took their positions at the different serving trays. As guests moved down the line of food, they were greeted with a “Happy Thanksgiving!” and a warm smile from each volunteer.

One man came up to Johnson’s potato station and said to her, “I hope you didn’t put any money on the Ravens for tonight’s game!” She laughed with him and said, “Walter, you and I both know they don’t stand a chance!” Johnson later says that Walter used to be a banker but lost his job and was having a hard time getting back on his feet. “What happened to him was so devastating, but he’s always in good spirits, no matter what life throws at him,” she says.

Johnson has learned many things from her community service, but she says the most important is not to judge those who ate at the soup kitchen. “The common assumption is that those in need are there because of drugs or alcohol or even laziness, but the truth is, awful things happen to good people, and most of the people I meet at the soup kitchen are really good people,” she says.

She wasn’t always so positive about volunteering. “My parents used to force my siblings and me to go to soup kitchens, but as a teenager, I never really understood what kind of contribution we were making,” she recalls. “It took some time, but now I see all of the great things we can accomplish here at the soup kitchen, and I feel so special to be a part of that.”

Mary, one of the many guests eating at the soup kitchen, called Shanae and the other volunteers “angels,” saying, “It’s nice to know that someone’s looking out for me.”

Charles Yoo, the volunteer organizer at Greenpoint Church, says Thanksgiving is the soup kitchen’s busiest time. “It’s the holiday to be thankful, so people come here to give thanks and provide for others,” he says. “There’s a lot of chatting, feasting, laughing, and even singing. It’s really something.”

After the meal was over and the guests had gone, the volunteers cleaned up the tables and plates, talking about the success of the night.

Johnson says her next project is to recruit more volunteers for the soup kitchen. She plans on using social networks like Facebook and Twitter to reach out to teenagers and young adults.