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Statesboro Soup Kitchen: Reaching beyond the dinner plate


May 03, 2018

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A little more than 20 years ago, a small band of people from First United Methodist Church in Statesboro saw a need in the community, and took action to meet it.

That need was to feed the hungry, so they started Statesboro Soup Kitchen, which still operates today. The first time the ministry served a meal, there were about 10 or 15 people who came to eat.

These days, they serve between 350 and 450 people every Saturday, in addition to delivering meals to The Summit.

Karen Phipps is the current director for the ministry, which has expanded way beyond the original small group that gave it life. There are a multitude of volunteers, coming from churches, civic groups, and the local schools.

Phipps says finding volunteers is not difficult — it’s finding sponsors that can be a bit tricky. The Jaycees, and the Kiwanis and Rotary clubs have sponsored meals. Groups from Georgia Southern University regularly serve, along with those from Saint Matthew Roman Catholic Church, Statesboro Korean Baptist Mission and Ogeechee Technical College, just to name a few.

A typical week is anything but, Phipps said. If she is ordering food, she “guestimates” how much they will need based on an educated guess as to how many people will show up. She usually arrives on Saturdays around 8 a.m., and boils the water for the tea, and then gets out of the way so that the volunteers, who arrive around 9 or 9:30, can begin working. They prep and cook the food, and their first big push is to get all the meals ready to be delivered to The Summit. They are delivered by 12 volunteers, who go in pairs to make the deliveries.

The remaining volunteers set up, serve and then clean up. They also prepare meals to go to the local homeless mission, which are picked up. The meal is served from noon to 1 p.m., but Phipps says when the food is ready, they will begin serving, even if it’s early.

If there is a sponsor for the week’s meal, they pay for the food and provide it. Some even do their own shopping, which Phipps says gives her a welcome break.

The meals they serve can be as simple as cold cut sandwiches, chips and fruit, to turkey tetrazzini, which they served recently.

“We’ve had chili and tacos. We’ve done industrious things like Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes and a vegetable. The favorite dessert is ice cream,” she said.

If they have leftovers, they freeze what they can, and they often take meals to Safe Haven, to the local fire, police and emergency services departments, to group homes and halfway house, and the volunteers eat as well.

“We don’t let anything go to waste,” Phipps said.

Phipps began decorating the tables with colorful plastic tablecloths from Wal-Mart, believing it would help create more of a restaurant feel for the guests. The volunteers decorate the fellowship hall for holidays as well.

“Anything to make it fancy, because for a lot of the folks, it’s the only time they get close to some sort of simulation of a real restaurant,” she said.

Phipps’ full-time job is as the program director for Eagle Academy at Georgia Southern. She came on board first as a volunteer at the soup kitchen and was asked two years ago to become the coordinator. She wanted to make sure those who come to eat are treated as guests. Volunteers walk around and wait on the guests, and talk to them. The meal is buffet style, and volunteers dish up the food.

Originally, people who came to the soup kitchen were given their food and they would leave. Phipps said that as coordinator, she just couldn’t do things that way. She was told no one would want to stay and eat. She asked, “Can I just try?”

The first time they served a buffet-style meal, 100 people stayed and ate at the church.

People who now come to the soup kitchen each week mostly come from the neighborhoods surrounding the church, within walking distance. Some ride bikes from a bit further.

Phipps says they often get comments from guests about the food, but the ones about the volunteers talking with the guests are the “ones that grab my heart.” She recalls a group that came from the tent city in the woods across from The Olive Garden, saying she sat down one day to talk with them.

They told her that they came to the soup kitchen not for the food, but because, “You’re willing to sit down at the table and talk with us like we’re the same as you are.”

She was a bit shocked, and responded, “You are the same as we are.”

“But nobody treats us like we are,” they said.

This has become her mission, as well as the mission of the soup kitchen: To show everyone God’s love and to show them that they are cared for.

Some of the volunteers have gone the extra mile and provided additional needed items, like goodie bags that contained small items and toiletries. The Korean church always brings clothing to hand out, Phipps said, and the soup kitchen always welcomes donations of warm clothing.

Items that are always needed include No. 10 canned vegetables, jarred spaghetti sauce, frozen foods, gallon containers of ice cream, sandwich cookies and plastic bags for to-go boxes. They are also always collecting warm socks, shoes and coats, in all sizes, from babies to adults. Monetary donations are also welcome. Any of these can be dropped off at FUMC.

Phipps says the soup kitchen is important not just for the work it does in feeding people, but also for what it teaches the community. It’s shocking to most to hear the number of people who are fed each week.

“It’s opening their eyes to a part of the community who is not doing really well, and not thriving,” she said. “It opens their eyes to a part of the community they may not see. They may see, but they don’t really see.”

If you’d like to help, e-mail the soup kitchen at statesborosoupkitchen@gmail.com, or Phipps at kcantini@georgiasouthern.edu. You can also call the church at (912) 764-7549.


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