A hunger to serve

The Baltimore Sun

One in a series of occasional features highlighting people and organizations in the Baltimore area who exemplify the "Spirit of Sharing," The Sun's annual holiday campaign. It's not just lunch.

And it still moves the older volunteers to see men and women say grace over their free meal at Our Daily Bread, the downtown soup kitchen run by Catholic Charities. Pat Marani of Parkville has been volunteering here for maybe 17 years - she isn't sure exactly - but it never fails, every day she and her band of volunteers see people giving thanks over warm baked chicken or tuna casserole.

"We almost don't know why we come here. We've been coming here so long," Marani says. Over the years, she occasionally has wondered whether the effort is worth it. But it took a young volunteer last year to remind the veteran volunteer why she still dons her green apron and dishes out food to the homeless.

"Because it's the right thing to do," Marani says.

Tomorrow is the first Thanksgiving at Our Daily Bread's new $15 million center. The staff plans a special meal of ham, pasta salad, string beans and, as always, dessert. And, as always, a crew of volunteers will be here to serve an expected 400 Thanksgiving meals. Given the other free meals offered in the area, it'll be a smaller crowd than is typically fed the other 364 days of the year.

Some of the hungry are still finding their way to the center, which moved in June to its new home at 725 Fallsway, less than a mile east of its former site on Cathedral Street. It has a fancier name now, too. Our Daily Bread Employment Center has been pushing its new job services, while it faces the same challenges. People are jobless and homeless. They have substance-abuse or mental health problems. They are hungry.

Kindness on the menu

But another constant has been the volunteers. Main lunch courses and the main address might change, but the spirit of Our Daily Bread hasn't changed in 26 years.

"They always have a kind word for you here," says Woody Carr, 38, who works in demolition and home improvement when he can find work. He hasn't lately. One day last week, Carr waited in line for lunch outside the center's train station-like exterior.

Inside, volunteers set out place mats, poured hot tea and packed breadbaskets. New volunteers stood nervously; they don't want to mess up. The veterans take them under their wing.

"Battle stations," says Don Dailey, 73, of Woodlawn, a volunteer dish washer.

At 10:30 a.m., the doors were unlocked, and the first 78 guests were seated. Everyone else is given a meal ticket - a token exchange to add a sense of dignity to the experience. The ticket plan has been around since Our Daily Bread opened in 1981, when Sister Josanna directed a hot meal program.

The midday meal remains a portrait of precision, consistency and manners. Volunteers address guests as "sir" or "ma'am." Volunteers wear green aprons, which they pack with napkins, paper bags and sandwich bags for guests to take food with them. Of the 650 men and women served daily, the staff estimates 20 percent are homeless. The others are the working poor. About 1,200 are considered year-round regulars.

A place to gather, gab

The dining room smells like baked chicken. "Would you like some bread?" is a common refrain. (Guests can choose up to seven pieces.) Many eat in silence and finish quickly.

Others stay awhile and talk sports. What's a meal without complaining about the Ravens? People might be out of money, prospects and luck, but ripping the home football team knows no economic bounds. The volunteers often join in the roundtable sports talk.

Mainly, though, they talk with each other. Some have been serving together, apron-to-apron, for as long as 20 years. Retirement brought some here, the need to feel useful. Tragedy led others here, the eternal need to be with others.

Since there's a vegetarian alternative every day, Bernie and Eleanor Farace brought the seven pounds of veggie casserole. They have been volunteering for 15 years - ever since they lost their son at the age of 44 and, two years later, their 53-year-old daughter. The couple looked for a grieving group. They came to Our Daily Bread instead.

"Bernie played the music at my wedding 46 years ago," Marani says. Neither one can remember what he played.

"Something on the guitar,' says Bernie Farace, busy righting wobbly pumpkin pie slices on the dessert tray.

Bill O'Hagan of Scaggsville swoops up five plates to run to his server on the floor. O'Hagan likes good plate presentation, so his pal Sue Walker in the kitchen turns each chicken piece on its most attractive side. They make quite the team. "Bill has been trying to fix me up with someone," she says. Walker's husband, Bob, passed away four years ago - she's been volunteering ever since.

O'Hagan can't remember exactly when he started here or why.

"My standard answer is, 'Less time in purgatory,'" he says. After running five well-presented plates, he returns with a better answer.

"I just like helping people," he says.

A time to chew the fat

The line always keeps moving. After the first seating, waves of homeless people are seated until the kitchen shuts down at 12:30 p.m. In the lulls, the volunteers catch up on family, church or news news. What about the pope bypassing Baltimore when he visits the U.S. next spring? Hmmm. Pope John Paul II shared a meal of chicken casserole at the Cathedral Street site in 1995. Talk turns to that downtown wedding that was called off. They sent the cake over. Now, that was dessert.

The business picks back up with 15 minutes left for lunch.

"Darn, I ran out of French parsley," a volunteer jokes from the back.

"A guy wants an extra brownie," O'Hagan reports. He hauls three baked chicken meals back out on the floor. He's back to the kitchen just as fast.

"Need five veggies!" he hollers.

That would be more veggie meals than requested for the entire shift. Marani and the Faraces must be thrilled: It gets mighty lonely if you're on veggie detail on baked chicken day. A new volunteer dutifully relays the impressive veggie order.

It's a phony order.

"Bill does that to all the new volunteers," Marani says.

At 12:30 p.m., the dining room locks back up. Before the kitchen's shutter clacks down, a homeless man approaches the window.

"The vegetarian meal ... was good," he says. "Bless you."

Pat Marani, the volunteer who once maybe questioned what good this all does, took just a moment for herself.

"You made my day," she then said.

rob.hiaasen@baltsun.com

To volunteer at Our Daily Bread Employment Center, call 443-986-9031.

Help Baltimore area's needy

The Spirit of Sharing Holiday Campaign raises money to help needy families in the Baltimore area during the holidays.

The campaign is sponsored by the Baltimore Sun Charities, a fund of the McCormick Tribune Foundation.

Gifts made to the campaign have an even greater impact as the McCormick Tribune Foundation matches donations at 50 cents on the dollar.

In addition, all administrative costs are covered by Baltimore Sun Charities and the McCormick Tribune Foundation, so all money raised, plus the match, will be granted locally to those in need.

All donations are tax-deductible. Contributions may be made online at baltimoresun.com/spiritofsharing, by phone by calling 888-683-4483 or by sending a check to Baltimore Sun Holiday Campaign, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278-0001.

The agencies featured in the Spirit of Sharing articles are not necessarily past or future recipients of the Baltimore Sun Charities Spirit of Sharing campaign.

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