Feeding the Hungry Along the Shoreline

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get helpThe Shoreline Soup Kitchens & Pantries is an interfaith service that provides food and fellowship to those in need and educates our community on hunger and poverty.

During the winter of 1989, the First Baptist Church in Essex, led by Pastor Erica Wimber, had a “vision” day. People in the church were asked to “dream” and share their “dreams” about all the things they would like to see a church doing in their community. One of the things discussed was that they would like to do more for local missions. Several of the members had heard stories of people in the area that were in need, and believed there was a hidden problem. One church member knew of an elderly couple that was picking garbage out of a dumpster. Many phone calls were made, but to no avail. The response from local social service departments was always the same, “There is no poverty here”. The church members disagreed and looked at soup kitchen programs in other towns.

They decided to serve one meal as an experiment to find out for themselves if anyone would come. They put signs up on dumpsters, in stores, and publicized on the radio and in the newspapers. They put the first $5.00 donation, by the late John Pullen, in a little purse carried by Ruth Adams. On March 25, 1989 the Saturday before Easter, they opened their Fellowship Hall for this experimental offering. People were invited to donate food, and volunteers prepared a hot meal from food the committee collected. Residents were welcome to eat – whether they were in need or just lonely and in need of company. They waited with deep anticipation. A woman walked in and handed them a $50.00 gift certificate for a local grocery store and she began to leave. They said, “Wait, we don’t know if this will really work, we don’t know if anyone will come.” The woman turned and said, “Ah, ye of little faith” which became the volunteers favorite saying whenever spirits or that little purse ran low.

Eleven people came that first day and touched their hearts. The group knew they were doing the right mission when they served people like the three children whose mother was too embarrassed to attend. They opened the following week for a second trial. The second meal brought 14 people. On that basis they decided to serve meals every week.

One of their primary goals was to reach local residents before they were forced to move to cities. Pastor Erica felt strongly that communities should take care of their own people. She believed that people in rural areas who found themselves in need, should not need to move away from their homes, extended family, communities, and support systems at a time of crisis in their lives. She said that once these people arrive in the city where they are in a foreign environment, statistics show that they are at a very high risk for becoming chronically homeless. She believed that the solution was to keep people from entirely bottoming out and the groceries and hot meal would give people some help, some sense of dignity, and hope while they tried to solve their own problems.

That first year certainly had its’ ups and downs. While waiting for the word to get out, there were days when 2 or 3 or even no people came to the soup kitchen. Volunteers quit, saying it wasn’t worth their time. There were days when they questioned the loaves and fishes principle. They had shown the need; would the food continue to appear? They remember their little purse getting so low one time that Ruth left a note for a guest preacher at the Baptist church saying how finances were desperate. By afternoon of that day the purse was full. They never closed; they kept saying “Ye of little faith” and hung in there.

But it wasn’t easy. Much of the community did not like what they were doing. There was extreme controversy, and the group was told that they were encouraging indigents to move into the area, and that they were attracting the wrong element.

In the fall of 1989, a neighbor who struggled with alcohol addiction and homelessness was encouraged by someone in the community to leave the area and go to New Haven where there were more services to help him. The local police knew this man and would seek him out on cold nights and let him sleep in a cell over night. Of course, in the morning they would let him go and he would liquor up again. He took the advice and went to New Haven, and on a cold winter night he went to a shelter. He was drunk like he always was, and the shelter refused him because of it. He died on the streets of New Haven that night. He had frozen to death. Everyone at the soup kitchen felt in their heart that he would not have died if he was where people knew him. Pastor Erica said in the local paper, “His blood is on our hands”. This was the turning point for the soup kitchen. The intense controversy ended, and many folks realized the soup kitchen was needed.

They named the meal site, the Shoreline Soup Cellar, An Interfaith Community Service. They started collecting funny, sad and sometimes inspiring stories: Funny stories like the day a young teen, sent to volunteer as a community service “punishment”, turned to one of the adult volunteers and said, “What did you do?”; Or inspiring like the day when a young girl walked in with a big bag of her Halloween candy and donated it all and kept none for herself. They formalized their purpose, formed and wrote organized job assignments, had meetings every 6 weeks, and set the ground work that still forms the SSKP today. Chip Adams, Ruth and Dick's son, designed the logo. Ruth Adams went to church after church, talking at Sunday Services, knocking on doors. She was relentless. She spread the word, gathering volunteers and donations and an enlightened public. Eventually a very strong majority of local churches were on board and involved. Donations began pouring in.

They also set the seeds for the philosophy and guidelines that the SSKP uses today. For example, Pastor Erica had a rule, “When you eat, everybody eats, so there is no difference between who’s giving and who’s taking. You’re not taking the food away from the people. Just the opposite, you’re taking the pride away from the people when you don’t sit and eat with them." The original founders also had plans to expand the times, days, and locations of the soup kitchen, and develop work on providing affordable housing and a shelter.

The Shoreline Soup Cellar grew as the word got out. By 1991, the second year of operation, the soup cellar was feeding an average of 70 people, and giving out 60 boxes of groceries per week. They picked up people who needed a ride, and they delivered to ones who couldn’t get out. It had really expanded and the cellar had outgrown its first home. The Shoreline Soup Cellar moved to Saint John's Church in Old Saybrook where the facilities were much larger. The meals were served at St. John’s on Saturdays in the then unused school building.

At this time there were approximately 60 volunteers that staffed the meal site on a rotating basis. They were funded by donations from churches, synagogues, community groups, individuals and businesses. October 1991 another soup kitchen was opened at the Grace Episcopal Church in Old Saybrook on Wednesdays.

In 1992 Pastor Erica was leaving the area. She knew she needed to hire a staff person to replace her work and continue providing the management and general running of the Shoreline Soup Cellar, but finances were slim. She called a half dozen people that had once told her if she ever had a special need to call them. In one afternoon, she had enough money to cover the salary. She then hired Denise Learned (presently Director of Camp Hazen) as the part-time Executive Director.

In 2007, The Shoreline Soup Kitchens & Pantries had increased to 8 soup kitchens, 2 heat & eat programs and 4 pantries in an 11 town area. In 2009, SSKP added a fifth pantry in Niantic.  In 2017, SSKP added a ninth meal site in Westbrook.

The SSKP is governed by a Board of Directors which sets the goals and policies and, through the Executive Director, directs and supports the affairs of the organization. The Board of Directors may consist of up to fifteen members, up to five of whom may be clergy from among the local faith communities.

At our inception a committed group of local faith community members formed The Shoreline Soup Kitchens to provide food and fellowship for those hungry in body and spirit as a CT voluntary religious society. And, SSK, subsequently was granted Federal 501c3 nonprofit status.

In 2012, our Board of Directors, as part of their regular review of our bylaws and due diligence responsibility, and under advice of our pro bono attorney voted to change our Connecticut formation status.

Our current CT corporate status as a nonstock nonprofit corporation provides additional safeguards and the full benefits of the CT Nonprofit Corporate Act for our organization and mission. This is particularly critical as we have become an essential service in our community that many people rely on every day for food and fellowship.

In relation to our CT corporate status being amended, and due to the IRS regulations governing 501c3 organizations, in January 2016 we adopted a new name and EIN#. All other aspects of the SSKP, including our interfaith culture, mission, vision, scope, contact information, mailing address, physical address, focus, and staff remain the same.

The SSKP is staffed by a full-time Executive Director, a full-time Development & Outreach Director, a part-time Administrative Assistant, five part-time Pantry Managers, and one part-time Volunteer and Program Director. And, as always, the majority of our work is done by volunteers.

The urgency for help on the shoreline has grown tremendously, but food and funds always seem to keep up with the need. A common story that many volunteers often quote is the Christian story of the “Loaves and Fishes”. A recent quote from Pastor Erica says, “I have a whole new understanding of Jesus’ miracle after my experience with The Shoreline Soup Kitchens. Jesus fed people who were genuinely hungry – he revealed the need. The miracle begins with Jesus confronting the need head on and not sending the 5,000 away to get food someplace else. And of course, the food appears.” And so it goes for the SSKP. As the need is revealed and grows, the resources always appear to meet the demand.

The Shoreline Soup Kitchen & Pantries, Inc. is looking toward a better future. We are constantly educating the community about poverty and bringing programs to the pantries that help people out of poverty. For the right reasons, we would love to put ourselves out of business. Can you “Dream” about a day when there is no need for the SSKP’s existence anymore? You can’t?

Ah, ye of little faith.

Some of our Founding Members

Pastor Erica Wimber Avena

Ruth & Dick Adams

Dot Burgon

Merna & Ted Colton

Holly Goff

Eleanor (Susie) La Place

Midge & Walt Lynn

Carol Ann Newman

Irma & Bob Nuhn

Edith & Hat Roberts

Mary Samburg

Jane Steinke
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