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Charity's home is where the heart is

The Baltimore Sun

For the last call on Cathedral Street, volunteers prepared nearly 100 meatloaves, steaming batches of green beans, massive bowls of salad and brimming baskets of bread.

Then the Immaculate Conception Church parishioners joined hands in prayer and blessed Baltimore's largest soup kitchen, one that has fed the city's homeless and destitute every day for 26 years.

About 700 diners then streamed in yesterday for the popular Meatloaf Sunday, which the Immaculate Conception volunteers prepare and serve restaurant-style at the start of each month.

"It's a huge effort from the parish. A lot of people are involved," said Jo Miller, 74, who has organized the meals her Towson congregation serves at Our Daily Bread since the soup kitchen opened in 1981. "They realize what they're doing has made a significant difference."

Miller's volunteers will return next month, but to a new location. Our Daily Bread moves today from its Cathedral Street location to a new $15 million, 52,000-square-foot facility in the shadow of the city's jail by the Jones Falls Expressway.

The soup kitchen will serve its 9,500th meal without interruption today in its new complex on the Fallsway. Yet the new Our Daily Bread Employment Center will offer far more than meals. Housing three Catholic Charities programs of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the center features job training, housing services and computers with Internet connections.

The new kitchen is also triple the size of the cramped Cathedral Street facility, Our Daily Bread staff members said. It includes three refrigerators, two ice makers, two walk-in freezers, food warmers and more stovetop space.

The dozens of sheet cakes and cheesecakes donated by the members of Towson's Calvary Baptist Church cluttered tables in the old dining room as volunteers cut them yesterday. But the new Fallsway kitchen provides ample room to prepare food in the back.

A constant line of hungry people waited for the last time outside the soup kitchen in the heart of Baltimore. Diners have about 15 minutes to eat before they must leave so a new group can sit down to eat. As they prepared to leave, some bagged meatloaf sandwiches to take with them. For some, it's the only meal of the day.

Our Daily Bread program assistant Warren Wheeler kept reminding patrons that yesterday was the last day to eat at the old kitchen, which is located next to the Basilica of the Assumption. But he urged them to check out the new center. "You've got to go down there," Wheeler, 54, said. "They're stressing jobs, stability - that's why it's called Our Daily Bread Employment Center."

Wheeler and weekend supervisor Nat Baker said helping others has improved their lives. A recovered heroin addict who has been sober for 12 years, Baker first came to Our Daily Bread for meals, then landed a job there 11 years ago.

Our Daily Bread officials said the new center's proximity to city and state correctional facilities would remind patrons to keep to the straight and narrow.

"They're helping us become a better member of society so you can give back instead of taking," said Jesse Walker, 48, who said he spent 20 years in and out of prison before his release in 1995. "[Our Daily Bread] has helped me stay out here since then."

Sharon Thorne and Sandra Cephas, 55-year-old identical twins who grew up in West Baltimore, said they both plan to further their education at the new center. Thorne said she dropped out of high school when she got pregnant in the 11th grade. She hopes to study for her GED at the new Our Daily Bread location.

"I want to get in those programs so they can better me so I can move on," said Thorne, who did housekeeping until her arthritis forced her to stop.

Entire families plan to make use of the new facility. Traina Davis and her seven children - aged 17 months, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8 and 9 - came out yesterday for the last Cathedral Street meal. Davis also depends upon My Sister's Place, a Catholic Charities day shelter for homeless women and children, which is relocating to the old Our Daily Bread building.

Daniel Goodwin, a member of Christopher Place, an 18-month residential job training program, moved into the new center last week. Goodwin, 56, who was formerly homeless and has now earned his GED, said he is proof the program works.

"We don't just want to give them a fish to eat for a day," said Goodwin, who now works as an assistant for Our Daily Bread. "We want to teach 'em how to fish ... so they can do for themselves."

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