Volunteers make up the heart and soul of the aptly named Heart, Love and Soul dining room and food pantry in the north end of Niagara Falls.
But as much as they give – and the 70 or so regular volunteers give thousands of hours yearly to supplement the work of the small paid staff – they get a lot in return.
"It's so well-run, it's clean, the people are great," said Kathy Vantine of Youngstown, who has volunteered at the agency since 2003. "I love the guests, the sisters do such a great job, and it's a fun place to give back to the community."
"The generosity of volunteers never, never ceases to amaze me and touch me," said Sister Beth Brosmer, the cheerful and unflappable woman from Sisters of St. Francis of Penance and Christian Charity who has bee executive director of the agency for the past eight years. Without her volunteers, she said frankly, "I couldn't do squat!"
Over its 30 years, the agency, often referred to as Heart and Soul for short, has assisted thousands of people in a city wracked by poverty. Today, the agency serves an average of 45 breakfasts and 155 lunches on weekdays and on the last two weekends of each month, when monthly food money runs out. Some 700 people visit the food pantry monthly for groceries to feed their families, and about 60 children are enrolled in the summer enrichment programs.
But there's more. Guests may visit the Necessary Shop to pick up such supplies as toilet paper, cleaning products, razors and shampoo. A community care coordinator and caseworker provide referrals to service agencies and health care providers. Haircuts and Bible study are each offered one day a week. A Narcotics Anonymous group meets in the building, and once a month except in the dead of winter, the Mobile Food Pantry of the Food Bank of WNY delivers a bounty of excess food.
The staff is small. Brosmer is assisted by just two other full-time workers, Assistant Director Pam Dixon and caseworker Liz Dixon. Pantry manager/bookkeeper Sister Marygrace Polino is part-time, and other part-timers work as volunteer program coordinator, administrative assistant, in the kitchen and as custodian.
A part-time community care coordinator is provided by Mount St. Mary's Hospital, with many guests getting their health care at Mount St. Mary's Neighborhood Health Clinic, less than a mile from Heart, Love and Soul's building at 939 Ontario Ave., close to Main Street. "We work very closely with Mount St. Mary's," said Brosmer. "A lot of our guests go there for their health care."
"If you want to serve their spiritual needs, you must first serve their physical needs," said the Rev. Bill Allegretto, C.M., a campus minister and director of the Vincentian Scholars program at Niagara University. Vincentian Scholars are placed at the agency for two years, one facet of the university's close relationship relationship with Heart, Love and Soul.
The north end agency, said Allegretto, "has certain programs that help with the spiritual life of the people who gather there, and it could be with areas of community or kindness, or the celebration of thanksgiving or special occasions."
The importance of community was illustrated at a recent lunch when longtime guest Clara Palka of Niagara Falls turned 94, and her family brought cake to the dining room so she could celebrate with everyone there.
Palka chatted with the others at her table – Barbara M. Hicks, Dick Welch, Steve Snyder and William Sharp – as her son-in-law, Daniel Poczciwinski, and grandson, Michael Samm, sat with her. "Everything's wonderful as long as you're alive and enjoying it," she said.
"Clara has been coming here ever since the place opened up," said Snyder, as the group enjoyed a lunch of hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, baked beans and apples. "She's one of the principal stockholders. She has a lot of years invested in this place, and we wouldn't have it any other way."
"This is a wonderful place to come to," said Palka. "I love this place, and everybody in it is nice."
"This is her family here, and she's integral," said Brosmer. "She always sits in that chair, and nobody else will sit in that chair; it's Clara's chair. That little group at the table, sometimes the faces change, but it's a pretty steady group. They solve all the problems of the world."
Brosmer said she is often struck by the positive attitudes of those who seek assistance at Heart, Love and Soul, and is inspired by the help they get from others.
"I have the opportunity to meet people at some very vulnerable times of their lives, and I am always so taken," she said. "Somebody will be coming in to eat, which means they are probably having a hard time, and I'll say, 'How are you doing?' and they will say, 'Oh, I'm blessed, because I'm able to get up and be here today,' and I just find that very touching."
Occasionally a new guest brushes off a greeting, but that's fine, too, said Brosmer. All are welcome to eat breakfast or lunch with no questions asked.
For help from the food pantry or Necessary Shop, clients register and provide proof of income.
Brosmer is also inspired by the caring attitudes others show toward the agency's guests. In mid-November, a longtime guest who also is ill had a fall in the street on her way to Heart, Love and Soul. She was able to make it to the door, bleeding and very weak. Staff, volunteers and other guests came to her aid. When Niagara Falls firefighters and an ambulance arrived, Brosmer stepped back and observed.
"I was so taken with the firefighters and EMTs, as well as the guests here who were helping her, how gentle and reverent they were, and tender in caring for her," she said. "It was very touching and moving for me."
It's these moments of subtle grace that inspire those who form a net of corporal and spiritual assistance for the clients of Heart, Love and Soul. Those who seek out the help and community of the center are usually poor and may grapple with an assortment of physical, mental and emotional challenges.
"We have several people on fixed incomes who come for the socialization; they see friends and sit and have their meals," said Vantine. "There are also people with mental health issues, and they can have a hard time. It's a privilege for me to be able to help out when I can, because there is a lot of hurt out there."
The hectic holidays
Around Thanksgiving and Christmas, the workload increases at Heart, Love and Soul. Some 260 households registered to receive Thanksgiving groceries; as of early December, 320 households already had signed up for Christmas food.
To meet the demand, regular volunteers carve out time to give to others. They come from the City of Niagara Falls, Youngstown, Lewiston, even North Tonawanda and Tonawanda, said Brosmer.
A student from Buffalo State who arrived to fulfill a program requirement "has exceeded her hours probably three times over, and continues to come because she likes to volunteer," said Brosmer. "She is reliable, you can set your clock by her, she knows exactly what she's doing because she's been doing it for so long."
Two volunteers who staff the food pantry have done so for years, said Brosmer, and two volunteers who attended school together serve lunch every Friday and Monday. "They know everybody, they know what to do and get it done," she said.
While there are some snowbirds in the volunteer corps, Brosmer said the volunteer coordinator maintains a list of people who can substitute for those who are away. "We need to always staff our breakfast line and our lunch line, and so it's wonderful to have volunteers that we can call on to do that."
Special-occasion volunteers fill roles, too. For Thanksgiving dinner, a large donation of apples was turned into pies by members of the First Presbyterian Church in Youngstown. When guests picked up their Thanksgiving groceries, volunteers from National Grid and from the Amherst accounting firm Chiampou Travis Besaw & Kershner LLP staffed the stations.
For years, a single family has arrived on Holy Saturday to assemble Easter baskets for 50 youngsters who have Easter breakfast at Heart, Love and Soul.
While expressing deep appreciation for all the agency's volunteers, Brosmer said she sometimes gets calls from people in December saying they would like to drop in and do a few hours of volunteer work.
Those callers, said Brosmer, "are calling at the very busiest time, which makes it a challenge for us to be able to respond with volunteer opportunities because we are already signing people up for toys, signing people up for a box of food for Christmas so they can make a holiday meal, helping some families get clothing gifts, and managing everything else that's going on. It's extremely busy and adding more pressure to Heart and Soul."
She has another suggestion for the people who feel called to assist. "If you want to bring some food or a check, that would be great, but because people are in need year-round, if you had a group that wanted to do something, maybe at another time of the year they could spread out the generosity of volunteering."
After the holiday season, prospective volunteers will be interviewed to find out their interests and matched up with opportunities, Brosmer said.
"Any gifts that you have you can present to them, and they they are open to different ideas," said Vantine.
That might include work in the pantry, where Cathie Bryk of Youngstown and Mary Lou Curry of Niagara Falls guided a new person through the process of collecting food, including fresh produce, canned goods and milk.
In the Necessary Shop, guests may select two personal care items a month, including toothpaste, toilet paper, shampoo, soap, razors, diapers, and cleaning products. "This operates largely on donations," said Jane Vicki of Niagara Falls, who has been on the board of Heart, Love and Soul for several years and started volunteering there in March.
Some people who enter the building as guests remain as volunteers. "Some of them will say, 'I really want to help, because you help us,' " said Brosmer, who always suggests that those people stay after lunch and wipe the tables and pick up the chairs. "If they stay and do that, and stay and do that the next day, we look at them a little bit stronger in terms of other things they could do."
Right now, the agency benefits from the assistance of two guests "who have been helping us above and beyond," said Brosmer. One man "sees things to be done and just does them. We have another gentleman who comes whenever we ask – he can unload trucks, he's a handyman, he's just a really nice guy."
Heart, Love and Soul guests benefit from what Brosmer called "terrifically generous" local farmers, whose donations include large wooden crates of apples and pears. In the summer, home gardeners with a bounty drop off "zucchini the size of toddlers," said Brosmer, and "we become very creative making zucchini this or zucchini that."
The emphasis on fresh vegetables and produce rather than baked goods is a deliberate step Heart, Love and Soul took about six years ago to provide more nutritious meals for its guests.
As the pastries and baked goods were phased out, with sincere thanks to the stores that donated them, the agency began to offer only wheat bread for the pantry and dining room, and fruit for dessert. In late autumn, the pantry was stocked with such seasonal produce as cabbages, squash, apples, onions and potatoes. A crate of fresh pears in the dining room was available for guests to help themselves.
"We do have exceptions, such as Clara's birthday, when the family brought in a big sheet cake, so it's really become the treat it should be, rather than an expectation every day," said Brosmer.
Another exception is Christmas, when the agency hopes to pack a box of cookies into each grocery bag and would gratefully accept donations of cookies for that purpose.
Heart, Love and Soul is also seeking donations of wheeled suitcases, which enable clients to carryt their food pantry groceries home easily, said Brosmer. The zip-up luggage keeps food protected from mud, rain and snow.
"Most people who come here walk or ride bikes," said Brosmer. "We get a lot of people who walk to the pantry and bring a cart. And some people come from very far, in terms of walking, when you are carrying 50 pounds of groceries – those cans are heavy."
The Niagara University connection
Brosmer, who is originally from Columbus, is an avid Buckeyes football fan. She joined the Sisters of St. Francis 53 years ago, and was educated as a teacher, which was her first assignment, leading to education administration. She "ping-ponged back and forth," she said, between Stella Niagara and Columbus, where she was director of mission and volunteers, overseeing about 400 volunteers, at St. Ann's Hospital in Westerville. Then, at Stella Niagara, she completed a project to raise money for ill and elderly nuns, along with missions and ministries. Eight years ago, she came to Heart, Love and Soul.
Her work there, Brosmer said, is greatly aided by the agency's relationship with Niagara University, a relationship formalized in 2009 with a memorandum of understanding between the two. The president of NU, first the Rev. Joseph L. Levesque and now the Rev. John Maher, approves the members of the 17-person board of directors, one of whom is a Vincentian brother or priest.
The assistance from Niagara University can be as simple as graphic arts work on the annual Christmas card or as substantial as assistance with the agency's annual recognition dinner, which will be held April 11 in the new Dining Commons at NU.
But the university's most meaningful contribution to the agency may be the energy and spirit of the student volunteers, including the Vincentian Scholars, who have an in-depth experience over the two years they serve in a single agency.
"Heart, Love and Soul is directly in line with the mission of the Vincentians," said Brosmer. "St. Vincent de Paul was always with the poor. The poor, those are your brothers and sisters."
The Rev. Bill Allegretto said, "The students will tell you that although they start with the idea that they are giving, not long into it they realize that they are the ones receiving the most from the experience."
As they spend time with the guests of Heart, Love and Soul, said Allegretto, the students "allow their hearts to change, allow their minds and perspectives and attitudes to slowly melt into an understanding that many of the people they come into contact with are good people, and could be just like them but don't have a safety net."
This realization of the guests' humanity has a profound impact on the students, Allegretto said: "They don't see them anymore as a statistic, they get to know them as real living human beings. And when they refer to them, they call them 'my friend.' "