Dinner with dignity

Volunteers in the church kitchen. Photo: Nancy Ellis Yates
All Souls on the Upper East Side serves restaurant-style meals to almost 400 people every week
By Laura Hanrahan

“Dining with dignity” is the motto at All Souls’ Monday Night Hospitality dinner. Every week for the past 37 years, volunteers at All Souls Unitarian Church on Lexington and East 80th Street have prepped, cooked and served sit-down, restaurant-style meals to in-need members of the community.

George Collins, the program’s co-chair, has been volunteering every Monday night for nearly two decades. Twenty years ago, he says, the average Monday night dinner would serve 75 guests. Now the number is closer to 400.

“It’s an aspect of the economy,” Collins said. The program was initially created in response to Upper East Side servants and maids whose living standards declined after losing their jobs due to age. Today, roughly 40 percent of those who attend are homeless, while others are working poor or elderly.

Starting at 4:30 p.m., volunteers busily transform the large, basement-level church hall into a makeshift restaurant. Twenty-five tables are carefully set with tablecloths, cutlery, china dishes, napkins, bread baskets and vases of flowers. Stations for food and drinks are set up along the outside walls, where the volunteer waitstaff, in their matching aprons, can refill their trays.

In the kitchen, a team prepares the evening’s feast. On the menu is a garden salad, vegetable soup and, for the main course, a fig and mustard chicken. The chefs had been tasked with incorporating the jars of fig preserves that had been given to the program through a donation — something, the chefs say, they don’t get often enough. To make sure all of their guests are looked after, the chefs also prepare a vegetarian option, and vegan meals are donated weekly by Candle 79. With an annual program budget of $80,000, each meal can cost only $3.70.

“We’re to the penny of how it works,” said Chef Dan Strader, who has volunteered with the program for more than 13 years.

For those attending the dinner, it offers not only a sense of dignity, but a community. As the guests pour in around 7 pm, the room fills with chatter while the diners, many having attended for years, catch up and swap stories.

“They come here for the social contact more than a meal,” Collins said.

One attendee, Gina, fell on hard times as the result of medical issues. The Brooklyn native has been coming to the Monday night dinners with her daughter for the past two years. They have made friends through the program and rely on the kitchen’s leftovers, given out to guests in to-go containers, to feed them the next day. Gina’s daughter, a vegetarian, loves that she is easily accommodated.

“The people are the nicest, just really the way they should be,” Gina said of the volunteer staff. “They treat everybody like human beings. It’s very good service, excellent service.”

Each course is individually served by the waitstaff and guests are offered their choice of beverage, either iced tea, water, coffee, hot chocolate or juice. The meal is finished off with dessert plates sprinkled with cakes and cookies. The All Souls School often donates cupcakes made by the kindergarten class, however, the dinner program is largely in need of more dessert donations, Strader says. To accommodate for the growing number of attendees, several tables are marked as “express.” Guests eating at these tables need to leave by 7:30 to allow for a second seating.

Upstairs, social worker John Sheehan, who is at All Souls on Mondays and Fridays, makes himself available to any guests seeking help.

“I help people get off the street, but that’s a process,” Sheehan said. “It’s all types of folks and all types of problems, mostly around housing, but sometime around health, sometimes around documentation issues.”

Sheehan will refer guests to shelters, facilitate job searches and help them find clothing donation programs. “We do whatever we can,” he said.

Every penny in the budget is accounted for. The dinner program lost its corporate sponsor two years ago and relies heavily on funding from the church. Unforeseen complications — like the dishwasher that broke six weeks ago — go unfixed until enough extra funds can be raised. And with the increasing number of guests coming to dine, the budget is stretched very thin most weeks.

“We tend to get a lot more people towards the end of the month,” said Nancy Ellis Yates, the volunteer coordinator. “Benefits have run out, so that meal is super important.”

Though homelessness is a weighty issue, all of the 65 volunteers have smiles on their faces throughout the evening, happily welcoming back the regulars and engaging with each diner. And although volunteers can come as often or as little as they would like, according to Yates many tend to come back week after week for several years.

“A lot of what we do here is education to the face of homelessness,” Collins said. “What people realize, the volunteers, is that our guests are just like them.”

For information on volunteering or donating, contact nancyellisyates@gmail.com.