Sunday breakfast at a Providence, R.I., church is more than a free meal. Half the volunteers are homeless themselves: 'It's their [own] breakfast that they're putting on.'
Every Saturday, Scott Budnick and his wife, Maureen, peel 75 pounds of potatoes. At 5 o'clock the next morning, Mr. Budnick packs up the potatoes, 500 eggs, 250 sausages, and a host of other items contributed by his friends and neighbors. He drives it all to the Mathewson Street United Methodist Church in Providence, R.I., in time to welcome the first wave of volunteers – some homeless, some not – to the kitchen.
The Sunday Morning Friendship Breakfast is free and open to anyone who's hungry. A sluggish economy keeps the crowds coming: The number of homeless Rhode Islanders climbed 10 percent in 2012. Since the friendship breakfast began 14 months ago, weekly turnout has grown from a few dozen people to more than 200.
The breakfast offers heaping plates of scrambled eggs, fresh fruit, pancakes, waffles, French toast, sausage, and home fries – plus pastries, oatmeal, juice, and coffee. It costs about a dollar a plate to produce.
"People tell us that this is a meal they look forward to all week long," Budnick says.
The breakfast is not just a free meal: Half the volunteers are homeless themselves.
"Early on we realized that people want to be useful," Budnick says. "Thirty or 40 people from the street help out every week, whether it's cooking home fries or pushing a broom." Budnick pairs up the volunteers, purposely mixing them up: "A lot of times, the person from the street knows our process better than the outside volunteer," he says. "It puts them in the leadership role."
Many volunteers point to Budnick as their inspiration for getting involved. He has strong roots in the community as a local contractor and Little League coach. The Turners, a fellow Little League family, contribute 200 servings of homemade French toast to the breakfast each week. Budnick's neighbors, the Ashley-Friedmans, make several hundred pancakes and waffles.
The Budnicks, Turners, and Ashley-Friedmans each have three children. "Families with kids, they feel like they don't have any time," Budnick says. But "there's always time."
For the first six months, Budnick and his wife pulled all-nighters to prepare the breakfast themselves. "I didn't reach out to anyone for a long time because I didn't want people to feel obligated," he says.
But since Budnick started speaking up, local schools, restaurants, and families have donated hundreds of dollars' worth of food, money, and staples like dish soap and paper towels. Ocean State Job Lot, a regional chain retailer, recently donated 250 sets of silverware. "Our breakfast is their one meal a week that is not served on foam, paper, or plastic," he says. "There's a dignity in that."
By 7:30 a.m., hungry diners of all ages fill the chairs at 14 long tables. The dining room is painted a cheery yellow, the word "peace" repeated in blue along the walls. Plates of pastries and fresh fruit dot each table. The Rev. Jack Fitzelle-Jones, a United Church of Christ minister and founder of the friendship breakfast, circulates among the tables, sitting down, shaking hands, taking prayer requests.
Budnick first met Mr. Fitzelle-Jones at a church youth group more than 20 years ago.
"He was this wonderful 12-year-old kid," Fitzelle-Jones recalls. "We just stayed in touch all these years."
Budnick adds, "Jack's always been a real hero of mine because he's dedicated so much of his life to homelessness and economic struggles."
Growing up in Rhode Island, Budnick was involved in community service from junior high school onward, taking a cue from his parents, who regularly volunteered on behalf of the group South County Against Racism. After high school, Budnick served with City Year, a civic service group for young people, in Providence.
In 2012 Fitzelle-Jones e-mailed Budnick to say he was interested in starting a worship meal for the needy. "It's church but in a very unique kind of way," Fitzelle-Jones says. "It's open to anybody of any religion, or no religion. People can take what they like and leave the rest."
Budnick is matter-of-fact about why he came on board: "We can all give back in some way. If I'm down, I hope somebody else would be there for me." He adds, "Jack's a visionary guy. I'm a nuts-and-bolts kind of a guy. We really complement one another."
In the kitchen, Markita Urwin has her hands full of coffeepots. "I was homeless for a year," she recalls. "This place gave me a leg up. Now I'm engaged to be married. We're gonna use this place for our wedding."
Budnick is a blur in the kitchen, helping with every part of the meal and coordinating the volunteers, the youngest of whom is 13. He stops to make time for anyone who asks for it, putting a hand on the person's shoulder to show he's listening. Usually the exchange ends in a hearty laugh.
"In the kitchen, I'm the butt of a million jokes," he says, smiling.
Russell Silva, the breakfast's head cook, first came as a guest last year. "This is my way of giving back," Mr. Silva says. He makes home fries, scrambled eggs, "whatever needs to be sliced and diced. I stay on the stove because of my leg," an injury that cost him his $18.75-an-hour job several years ago. Known on the street as "the walking-stick man," at the breakfast he's known for something else. "I get a lot of compliments on my home fries," he says with a grin.
Budnick thumps Silva on the back. "The guy's a dynamo. Russell knows how to put this meal together better than anyone," he says.
At 8 a.m., Fitzelle-Jones leads a brief worship session. He prays for the list of names he's gathered from the room – a family member in surgery, a war veteran in prison. Some diners talk through the prayer; others shush them.
At 8:15, the full breakfast is served. Runners serve food on trays to seated diners, one table at a time. "Everybody here gets something good," says Prince Dedo, the son of Liberian and Jamaican immigrants and a regular attendee and volunteer. The first time he came he answered Fitzelle-Jones's call for helpers among the crowd. "I said, I can do dishes. Every week, I do the dishes. I do this from the heart," Mr. Dedo says, bringing a hand to his chest.
By 8:30, some diners are busing empty plates to the kitchen window. New guests are constantly arriving. One woman asks, "Where does the line start?" One of the regulars tells her with a flourish of his hand, "There is no line. Just find a seat!"
"We want people to relax, as if they're paying customers," Budnick says.
By 9, the dining room is emptying. Volunteers sweep up and spray down tables. Christina Tate, a church member, is elbow deep in soapy dishwater. Dunking a plate, she explains, "I find it enjoyable. I find it an honor. I get all kinds of blessings from this." Does she look forward to this breakfast? "Oh girl," she laughs. "I wake up thinking about suds."
Budnick and Fitzelle-Jones hope to build the friendship breakfast into support groups for homeless people in need of housing. "Maybe veterans would want to be a part of support teams for other veterans," Fitzelle-Jones says. "Same with the gay community," to help gay teens who are turned out of their homes.
The meal ends when the kitchen runs out of food. According to Budnick, every week a volunteer who came in hungry will decide to give his plate to someone else. "It blew me away when it first started," he says. "You're feeding people's sense of self-worth, their sense of being productive and valued."
"It's much more than a meal site," adds volunteer Brook Ashley. "It's a place for this community to see nonjudgmental people who respect and value their contributions. Scott's done a phenomenal job, making it run in a way that's very empowering to the attendees: It's their breakfast that they're putting on."
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