Soup Kitchen's Business Booming

By Susan Morse

Herald Sunday, Sunday, November 23, 2008

[The following article is courtesy of the Herald Sunday and Seacoast Online.]

Volunteer Gloria Rancourt right, welcomes people to the free dinner at the St. Vincent's Kitchen in Hampton Beach on a recent Tuesday night. The kitchen served more than 85 people that night.
Diners flock to St. Vincent; meals served up in tough economic times.

St. Vincent's Kitchen is seeing a record number of people coming in for a free dinner.

The Hampton Beach soup kitchen served 106 meals one night in mid-November, 40 more than usual, according to Phil Fili, president of St. Vincent de Paul.

"Last year, we were serving an average 60 to 70 meals a night," Fili said. "This year, we've already hit 106, and seen three or four nights go up to 80."

Fili believes the upward trend will continue through the winter. The reason is the economy, he said.

Dick Glennon, who keeps records for the St. Vincent de Paul Society, said the kitchen used to average 65 meals an evening.

"They're going up, the last 12 days we've averaged 73 meals," Glennon said on Nov. 18. "The highest we've had is 106 meals."

The kitchen was able to serve everyone because volunteers usually offer second helpings after the 5 o'clock rush, Glennon said.

Fili believes the additional customers are living at the beach, where motels, hotels and cottages have traditionally served as lower cost housing for the winter.

Yet no one knows. The Ashworth Avenue kitchen is a bright, restaurant-looking place where volunteers serve homemade food in a congenial atmosphere, no questions asked.

"Anyone who walks through the door is entitled to dinner," Glennon said. "We think it's going to trend upwards through the winter. But we never know night tonight". One night we had 44 folks, and then 106."

The night of the record number was on a Tuesday when the Hampton Free Medical Clinic was in operation next door. Dr. Jay Kaminski and other volunteers open up the clinic every other Tuesday night.

"We've been (bombarded) all night," kitchen volunteer Gloria Rancourt said on Nov. 18, a Tuesday when the clinic was open. "There was a waiting line at 5."

The waiting room in the Hampton Free Medical Clinic was also crowded with people.

"It's definitely up," said nurse Sandy Lupoli. "We used to average 17, 18 people a night; now it's 23 to 27."

Lupoli believes people are coming from the beach area, in both Hampton and Seabrook.

Robert Preston, of Preston Real Estate, said he's seen no large increase in the number of people renting at the beaches this winter.

In fact, Preston said, winter rentals are off. There are no big jobs, no power plant scheduled maintenance, no big-dig project requiring a large amount of housing.

Leo Poisson, owner of Colonial Motel Suites on G Street at the beach, also hasn't seen many inquiries for winter, he said. Poisson does rent some rooms year-round. "You have to adjust to the market," he said.

Preston Real Estate owns the building where the soup kitchen and medical clinic operate. Bob Preston recently picked up three carloads of food from a restaurant business that was closing. Preston knows just about everyone around the beach, so he brought some of the food to Sharon's Sea Grille in the same plaza where the real estate office is located. The chef made four gallons of soup and brought it to Saint Vincent's Kitchen.

"Sometimes people don't know how to help," Preston said. "(The chef) said, 'I'd loved doing this, I didn't know I could do it.'"

Preston had another good story about the kitchen. One night, a man mistook Saint Vincent's Kitchen for a regular restaurant, went in, was served and expected to get a bill. He was told it was free.

"He came to the office the next day," said Preston, "left my dad (Robert Preston Sr.) $100. He thought it was a restaurant."

The St. Vincent de Paul charitable society is affiliated with Our Lady of Miraculous Medal Church in Hampton. Father George Ham began the soup kitchen in 1989 to serve runaway teens, Fili said. Fili still sees kids at the kitchen he believes are runaways.

Saint Vincent's Kitchen is open Columbus Day to Mother's Day, Monday through Friday, between 5 and 6:45 p.m.

St. Vincent de Paul serves on Tuesdays and Thursdays; Trinity Episcopal Parish and Hampton Rotary take alternate Mondays; United Methodist Church serves on Wednesdays; and Faith Community Church on Fridays. The kitchen used to be closed on weekends, but this fall, a new Seabrook church, Healing Rain Ministries, formerly the Maranantha Church in Hampton, opened the soup kitchen on Saturdays, between 2 and 4 p.m. Volunteers serve soup and sandwiches.

Sheila Gray, of Hampton, organizes the Saturday serving. "I worked the soup kitchen before on a Friday night," she said. "I've been talking about being open on a Saturday for a couple of years." On Saturdays, volunteers serve as many as 45 dinners, she said. The kitchen does not serve Thanksgiving dinner. The United Methodist Church in Hampton offers a free Thanksgiving dinner that Thursday, and also provides transportation to those who don't drive.