More Than A Meal
She has spent a career in nursing, assigned to the surgical intensive care unit at Rhode Island Hospital. But for nearly 25 years Liz McGrath has spent her Fridays shopping, cooking and feeding hundreds of homeless people in downtown Providence. This week Jim Hummel finds the program that she and a core of volunteers run - goes way beyond the meal.
They begin arriving just after 4 o'clock every Friday afternoon.
Before long, a steady stream of people begins to fill the the main hall at the Mathewson Street United Methodist Church in the heart of downtown Providence. On this hot Friday in July more than 200 people are here, in part to get out of the heat - but mainly to get something that has been a weekly constant for more than three decades.
Right in the middle of the action is Liz McGrath - who has been the driving force behind the Friday Evening Community Meal for nearly 25 years.
Liz: ``I always wanted to work in a soup kitchen and I tried to work at Amos house, like 35 years ago, but you needed a set schedule and I never had one.''
Liz is a nurse in the surgical intensive care unit at Rhode Island Hospital. She began filling in on the Friday meal in the late '80s when the person who was doing the cooking died unexpectedly. They told Liz it would be a temporary assignment.
Good thing, since she didn't know how to cook.
Liz: ``If you'll just do this for a couple of weeks we'll hire a cook.''
Hummel: ``And that was 23 years ago.''
Liz: ``That was in '88, I would say.''
Hummel: ``24 years ago.''
Hummel: ``It's been a long couple of weeks.''
Liz: ``I think it's more than a soup kitchen, so that's the draw.''
Diana: ``She said anybody can serve a meal but not everyone can work with people and try to help them the way she does and that's the part she enjoys the most is helping people. She kind of does her own little social service agency up there.''
Diana Burdett is the executive director of the Providence In Town Churches Association, which has sponsored the Friday night meal since the 1970s. When Diane arrived nine years ago she soon learned that for Liz, Fridays are much more than a meal.
Diana: ``She also has had people who have been guests at the meal site who have become homebound because they're ill. She makes sure they have food, she checks up on them, does home visits, all of this on her own.''
Hummel: ``You have helped people with doctor's visits, prescriptions.''
Liz: ``Yeah, we try, we try, go to pick them up, try and buy them...they can't afford their co pays - make appointments, get them there.''
Hummel: ``That wasn't part of the job description 25 years ago was it?''
Liz: ``(laughs) No.''
Hummel: ``You signed up to cook a couple of meals.''
Liz: ``Yeah, yeah.''
Liz, who also works part-time as a nurse practitioner in a doctor's office, begins most Fridays here - at the Sam's Club in Seekonk, where she buys the majority of food and supplies for that evening's meal. Another volunteer supplements with a trip to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank.
Liz is quick to redirect our focus from her, to the core of volunteers who arrive in stages over the course of the day, a sentiment echoed by Diana.
Liz: ``Liz is certainly outstanding and it's because of Liz that these other people do this, but there's a whole crew of people who are very dedicated every week.''
Cooking a meal for up to 250 people is a daunting task, but this crew has it down to a science.
Liz: ``The food has gotten better. I was originally doing hot dogs and beans, that was all I could do. The menu's good; it does depend on the weather. When you put those ovens on you can barely breathe in there.''
Hummel: ``Nice in January but not so much in July, huh?''
During one of last month's heat waves it was sandwiches, egg salad, three bean salad and a chilled jello fruit salad. A couple of weeks later chicken salad and pasta salad.
And every week they get donated items, from bread stacked up on a table for anyone to take, to clothes, to desserts and other items that come in from a steady stream of donors.
Then there's the annual cookout, complete with entertainment, games, meatball sandwiches and watermelon. Many here come for the conversation as much as they do the calories. After all a sit down meal is special for those who have no place to call home.
And they make a point to celebrate everyone's birthday, going through each month of the year.
Hummel: ``What is it that draws you to do this work?''
Liz: ``I think they're terribly underserved population. They're kind of an out-of- sight-out-of- mind group of people. Everybody wants to help kids, everybody wants to help hurt animals, me too, but I don't think they're as attractive to people. There's so much mental illness, there's so much drugs and alcohol. It's a hard job being homeless, I'll tell you. All day long they work, to eat, drink, make a phone call, get the money to make a phone call; let somebody let them make a phone and somebody hangs up on the other end of the line. It just never ends.''
Diana: ``She interacts with everybody. They all know her, she knows just about everybody, even though there are always new people coming in she makes a point of getting out and about and mingling with everybody getting to know what they need.''
Liz says she is seeing an increasing number of children showing up with their parents.
Hummel: ``What do you think when you see them come in?''
Liz: ``Oh boy, it breaks your heart. It breaks your heart. They should be sitting in their own house, they should be having a roof over their heads. Travelers Aid has that homeless...the family shelter, but imagine going to school from a shelter every day.''
Hummel: ``What is it that drives you?''
Liz: ``I really think that we're so fortunate by fate, I think by fate. God, fate, we're very, very fortunate and that's what we need to do. We need to help these people, because they don't have the resources - they probably haven't had the opportunities, people probably think they can make different choices but you need a certain background to make certain choices, you need help to make the right choices.''
Liz and the Friday evening meal have become a constant for many people.
Liz: ``A guy came he said: `Are you still here?'
last week. He hadn't been here since 1990 something he said. I don't know where he was, people move away and come back. People get out of jail they come ring the doorbell.''
Hummel: ``Did you take that as a compliment?''
LizL ``Yeah, They get out of jail, they've been gone for years, they come back.''
Hummel: ``Nice to know you're a constant in their lives. Life changes and Liz is still here.''
Liz: ``Yeah, yeah.''
And, she says, she hasn't given much thought to how long she'll continue to do it.
Hummel: ``So you begin in the late '80s and it's going to be your two weeks and they're going to get you a little help. And all of a sudden it's morphed into...''
Liz: ``The rest of your life.''
Hummel: ``I'm sure sometimes it feels that way. But clearly you wouldn't be doing it if...''
Liz: ``Oh I love it. I love it I love. it.''
In Providence, Jim Hummel for the Rhode Island Spotlight