ELMIRA — An early-March lunch gathering reflected Elmira Community Kitchen’s vital role in satisfying hunger — not only for food but also companionship.
Volunteers and patrons exchanged warm greetings and amiable chatter; for instance, a young man carrying a guitar case hugged an older woman before sitting down with her. Just after 11:30 a.m., following communal prayer, a long line of guests formed to receive plates full of nutritious food, prepared and served by volunteers from the Twin Tiers Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
Several more folks trickled in for lunch during the next hour. Some patrons sat quietly by themselves; others formed groups to visit with each other while dining. Many went up for second portions, and contents vanished quickly from a shopping cart filled with bread and rolls to take home.
One of the regulars that day, Ed Augustine, has been frequenting the kitchen for close to 15 years, routinely walking three blocks from his home even though he uses a walker.
“You get to meet people,” said Augustine, 73. “I look forward to it. It’s nice to come here.”
Elmira Community Kitchen — also known as Elmira Free Community Kitchen — has been serving up meals and hospitality to people in need since its inception in 1981. Kathy Dubel, director for the past 25 years, recalled that she represented Ss. Peter and Paul Church — now a part of Most Holy Name of Jesus Parish — in a pioneer group involving several local denominations that wanted to respond to rising unemployment and federal budget cuts affecting the poor.
The first kitchen was located in the former Ss. Peter and Paul School, remaining there until the building was demolished in 2003. The kitchen relocated to Trinity Episcopal Church for about 18 months and in January 2005 settled into a brand-new facility in Most Holy Name of Jesus’ recently constructed parish center. The center and kitchen are located at 160 High St., near Ss. Peter and Paul Church.
Elmira Community Kitchen comfortably seats about 125 guests, often operating at or near capacity. Dubel noted that more than 20,000 meals were served during 2018, with an average of close to 100 per day. The kitchen is open on Mondays and Wednesdays for dinner (4:30 to 5:30 p.m.) and Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays for lunch (11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.). In addition, lunch is served from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on the last Saturday of each month, along with holiday meals on Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving. Doors open 30 minutes before each meal is served.
Guests encompass a wide range of ages and personal circumstances. Augustine, for one, began coming to the kitchen after he was evicted.
“Things were tough,” he recalled.
Support for the kitchen’s patrons is derived from many sources. A total of 28 faith communities and civic organizations provide volunteers as well as food and monetary donations; for example, Most Holy Name of Jesus supplies teams of volunteers, has food-collection bins at each of its churches and conducts an annual benefit bake sale for the kitchen. Dubel noted that 90 percent of the kitchen’s $70,000 annual budget comes from donations, with grant money and Food Bank of the Southern Tier — a Catholic Charities agency — also helping make ends meet.
The kitchen, independently operated for most of its history, has entered into a relationship with Catholic Charities of Chemung/Schuyler in recent years. Dubel, whose involvement had been all volunteer up to that point, now has her duties built into her position as Catholic Charities’ justice-and-peace director.
Dubel acknowledged that there have been times the kitchen has cut it close financially.
“Some times of the year, when we really worry about the bank account getting pretty low, it’s sort of miraculous that money comes in,” she remarked.
That support helps the kitchen not only continue filling people’s bellies, but their souls as well.
“It’s become so much more than an economical help to people. It’s like ‘Cheers’ — everybody knows your name, you’re greeted. A lot of those folks don’t get that anywhere else,” Dubel said.
“A lot of them live alone, and the socialization is extremely important to their well-being,” added Nancy Kline, a longtime volunteer from Most Holy Name of Jesus. “I have been serving some of the same people, literally, for 25 years.”
Dubel, when asked what’s spurred her to remain involved with the kitchen for so long, said, “It’s the people, knowing some of the guests, knowing how important it is that we have this place. It’s very meaningful to see that. ”
She recalled, in particular, a young adult who once showed up at the kitchen asking to volunteer. He explained that as a child, he and his mother ate there almost every day, and so he wanted to give back.
“This young man comes back and tells us we saved them,” Dubel said. “It just gives me goosebumps, and I wonder how many other stories there are, how many lives we’ve touched.”
Augustine, for one, is grateful for the kitchen’s presence in his life.
“I’ll tell you something, we’re lucky to have this place,” he stated.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For information on donating to or volunteering at Elmira Community Kitchen, call 607-734-9784.