In her 20 years as volunteer director of the Elmira Community Kitchen, Kathy Dubel has experienced some close financial calls but always felt confident those hurdles would be cleared.
That confidence has been shaken as of late.
Due to a severe drop-off in cash support, the kitchen’s nearly 30-year ministry is being threatened. The situation, which Dubel described as "pretty precarious," has caused organizers to take the unprecedented step of putting notices in local parish bulletins recently, stating that the kitchen may not be able to continue unless donations increase.
"God is provident and sends us generous people, but it has been scary because costs have gone up so much," Dubel said.
Discontinuation of this ministry would be significant since Elmira Community Kitchen, located on High Street across from Ss. Peter and Paul Church, serves a vital role for Elmira’s impoverished. Founded in 1981, it’s the only facility in Chemung County that serves free meals every weekday year-round. The kitchen averages approximately 100 patrons for dinner on Mondays and Wednesdays and lunch on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, and also serves meals on the last Saturday of the month as well as on Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving.
Dubel said the kitchen’s $35,000 operating budget for 2010 covers food, utilities and maintenance. She noted that "about 75 percent of donations are from individuals in our local area," with the bulk of that total coming around the holidays. However, she said contributions this past holiday season only amounted to about half the usual amount.
"So we’re going into the summer months without really a cushion to tide us over to get into November and December (when donations pick up again). If we got down to so little in our budget we couldn’t pay for the next month’s bills, it may need to close," Dubel said. She blamed the poor economy for the decrease in financial support, acknowledging that charitable efforts everywhere are affected.
The good news is that people have begun responding to the bulletin notices. Dubel said July 28 that enough funding has come in to stake the kitchen through August, and so no patron has been turned away as of yet. The community response has given Dubel hope that "we’ll come out of this eventually," but it’s still a month-to-month existence at this point. Although volunteer workers often provide partial supplies of food, Dubel pointed out that the kitchen still needs cash to cover such expenses as utilities and trash removal.
"There are operating costs that can’t be covered in any other way," she said.
Elmira Community Kitchen is situated in a wing of the Blessed Sacrament parish center that opened in January 2005. Prior to that time, the kitchen was housed in the former Ss. Peter and Paul School on the same site. It operates through the assistance of more than 100 volunteer workers — many of who are from civic organizations and various religious denominations — who rotate monthly coverage.
The current kitchen — a "beautiful facility," according to Dubel — features a new kitchen area and equipment, as well as a dining area that comfortably seats about 125 guests. Dubel said the recent financial woes have caused particular concern in the Blessed Sacrament parish community, which has hosted the kitchen since its inception and promoted not only free meals but a friendly haven.
"It’s been such a part of their outreach," remarked Dubel, a Blessed Sacrament parishioner who also serves as justice-and-peace coordinator for Catholic Charities of Chemung/Schuyler. "People come to the kitchen because they need to stretch their own dollars, but they come for other reasons. It’s a place of welcome and hospitality."
Dubel compared the kitchen’s financial struggles with those of its patrons, saying, "It reminds us how the people we serve don’t have resources and don’t know what tomorrow can bring. It’s a good reminder of what we’re about and who we’re serving."
EDITOR’S NOTE: Donations may be made payable to Elmira Community Kitchen and mailed to 215 E. Church St., Elmira, NY 14901.