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Pottsville News

Patrons Say Pottsville Soup Kitchen is Like Family

A food truck would have a hard time replacing this atmosphere.

It’s a few minutes before 5 o’clock on Monday afternoon and a group of regulars gather outside the Pottsville Area Soup Kitchen on Mahantongo St.

Inside, a staff of volunteers puts the finishing touches on dinner they’ll serve those hungry patrons. On this night, it’s barbecue chicken thighs cooked on an outdoor griddle.

As the doors open and the patrons are allowed inside, the sounds are reminiscent of an old-fashioned family Sunday dinner. Many are welcomed by name. There’s some laughter and many hearty hellos.

It’s a feeling not many of the soup kitchen’s patrons get to experience often, but for about 90 minutes on 4 nights a week, it’s one they relish.

In a few weeks, this feeling could be taken away due to a recent decision by Catholic Charities to move food service out of the soup kitchen at 504 Mahantongo St. Instead, the organization is putting all its energy into a new food truck that aims to serve patrons all across Schuylkill County, rather than just exclusively in Pottsville.

However, the tentative schedule for that food truck and the shutting down of service at the soup kitchen building in Pottsville means these gatherings aren’t likely to happen again, at least not in the foreseeable future.

For these patrons, it’ll definitely feel like a gut punch. And it won’t just affect the patrons. The volunteers who run the soup kitchen are going to feel that way, too.

The Canary spoke to several patrons during the dinner service on Monday and each openly expressed what the Pottsville Soup Kitchen means to them and how it’s been the one steady thing in their lives that haven’t featured many steady things over the years.

One word that came up often in those conversations is family. That’s something that a food truck, while it’s definitely appreciated, just can’t replace, they say.

The Pottsville Area Soup Kitchen is far more than just a place to get a home-cooked meal. It’s a place to congregate and socialize, too.

And it seems many of the patrons truly enjoy each other’s company.

One patron, Dennis, says after he was unable to work and couldn’t collect unemployment compensation, it’s been the soup kitchen that’s kept him going.

“I depended on here and two other people depend on here that I bring meals for,” Dennis says. “People do depend on the four days.”

Over the years, he says, the average of age of people who come to the soup kitchen has steadily gone down. While it used to serve more senior citizens in the past, most of the patrons these days are under the age of 50.

Another patron, Alicia, has come full-circle in terms of her role at the soup kitchen. A few years ago, when she was working at a local restaurant, she would come here to volunteer and cook.

Then, Alicia lost her home and on this day, she’s here as a patron.

“I really needed this place. If it wasn’t for this place, I wouldn’t have had food. I don’t want to see this place go,” she says.

Deborah, another regular at the soup kitchen, says she really looks forward to the time she spends here. And it’s more than just the food she looks forward to a couple nights a week.

“The people who run the place, they’re like family. They’ll help you out in a pinch. We look forward to them a lot. We depend on them,” she says. “I want to come down here for the people. Sometimes, we need people. They’re always here.”

Out on the porch this night, Keith has finished his meal and is enjoying the early evening socializing with some friends.

Keith says he’s at the soup kitchen because earlier this year he had to put literally every penny he had toward an electric bill to avoid the lights getting shut off.

It’s a situation anyone could find themselves in at some point in their lives. After his bills are paid, he’s got $60 to last him the month. Being in the pinch he’s in is a result of that electric bill and things snowballing from there.

“It cascades … the proverbial snowball downhill,” he says. “I’ve been coming here since the middle of May. I came here when I was homeless. I got back on my feet, got a place, but I’m out here again because they take care of me.”

While these patrons have experienced upset and turmoil in their lives over the years, the one that seems to keep them relatively upbeat is the soup kitchen. It’s the rock in their lives.

And one volunteer who’s epitomizes that steady in their lives is Mary Ann McGuinness. Many refer to her as “mom”. She’s worked at the soup kitchen for decades now.

The potential loss of this atmosphere for most of the week is not sitting well with her.

“It breaks my heart. I know the people that come in,” she says.

McGuinness says she’s worried about the impact of the proposed Catholic Charities food truck on this family that gathers at the soup kitchen 4 nights a week.

She’s struggling to find the logic and the heart fueling this decision.

“They come to the soup kitchen to sit down, to mingle with other people. And you say, come and take a meal?

“You’re missing the point here, McGuinness adds. “Where in the hell are they going to take it? What are they doing in the wintertime. Where are they going to sit and eat … in the rain, in the hot weather. We have air conditioning. It’s a place to sit down and eat.

IN THE PHOTO: Mary Ann McGuinness serves Monday’s dinner, barbecue chicken thighs to (from left) Deborah, Dennis, Alicia, and Phyllis at the Pottsville Area Soup Kitchen. At the soup kitchen, McGuinness is often referred to as “mom”.

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