It’s dinnertime at South Park Inn, a homeless shelter in Hartford, and the evening’s menu includes barbecued chicken, wild rice, green beans, salad, rolls and chocolate chip brownies.
“Everybody wants barbecued chicken,” says Vicki Iaccarino, coordinator of residential services for Catholic Charities, who put in a special request with the chef for barbecue to please the residents.
The dinner line moves quickly. Iaccarino asks, “Chicken?” and “Green beans, hon?” as she dishes out chicken from behind a counter.
Serving alongside her are fellow volunteers Lesli Anderson and Elena O’Halloran. A fourth volunteer, Alicia Fleming, stands in the dining area, offering brownies.
The volunteer food servers all greet the residents with a smile and chat with them. When the line for the second shift begins to slow down, the three volunteers behind the counter suddenly break into song, singing the Supremes’ “Stop in the Name of Love,” as they hold up serving spoons as makeshift microphones and sway to their own music.
One diner at the counter immediately joins them and sings along.
Then the servers switch to George and Ira Gershwin. “You like potato and I like potahto. You like tomato and I like tomahto. Potato, potahto. Tomato, tomahto. Let’s call the whole thing off.”
Before leaving, the residents turn in their empty plates, and the reviews are in: “It was delicious. Thank you so much,” “Gracias” and “God bless you.”
It’s clear that the meal was much appreciated and that the volunteers’ good cheer was equally well-received.
The four food servers are employees of the Archdiocese of Hartford who agreed to volunteer their own time after work to serve at the shelter. They work out of the offices at the Archdiocesan Center at St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield.
Since 2012, a group of archdiocesan employees and other donors have given the funds to serve meals to the homeless four to six times a year to South Park Inn’s approximately 150 residents.
Archdiocesan Center chef Gordon Losey and his kitchen staff — Phil Levine, Elvira Begix, Antone Costa and Hilton Bush — develop the menu and prepare the nutritious meals. Begix and Steve Bell, who works in maintenance, pack up the dinners and load them into a pickup truck for transport to the shelter. Then different office employees rotate as servers for each meal.
South Park Inn, located in the former South Park Methodist Church on Main Street, opened in 1982 to assist the homeless. Today, it provides temporary housing for men, women and children.
South Park Inn also includes a Transitional Living Program for men, allowing them to stay for up to two years while they engage in education, job training, mental health services or substance abuse treatment programs to increase their skills, income and self-sufficiency. Plimpton House, another program of the inn, provides permanent residence for 35 women and men with severe limitations and who need ongoing support.
One temporary resident at the shelter, Adrian Irving, was the diner who sang along. He said he especially enjoyed meeting the volunteers.
“They had a good song that inspired me and lifted me up,” he says.
Irving, formerly a nurse for more than 25 years at Hartford Hospital and UConn’s John Dempsey Hospital, says a disabling back injury coupled with a recent house fire left him homeless.
Irving, who has been living at the shelter for about a month, says he is determined to make his stay short. He went to the doctor that day and was working with shelter staff to apply for disability benefits. He says he is thankful to the staff at South Park Inn, to the volunteer food servers and to God.
“It’s the grace that gets us through,” he says.
Iaccarino, a member of the Archdiocesan Center’s Spirit in the Workplace Committee, chairs its subcommittee of volunteers who serve at South Park Inn. She coordinates the employees who agree to serve each meal.
She says her model for serving others is her mother, who used to run a meal program in Branford. “I’ve always given back,” she says. “It’s sort of embedded in me. Since I was a child, I’ve always served in soup kitchens.”
Lesli Anderson, group benefits coordinator for the archdiocese, says, “It’s kind of been one of my missions to feed the homeless.” In addition to serving at the shelter in Hartford, she says she helps to run food drives in her hometown of Durham.
Alicia Fleming, sales assistant for the Archdiocesan Center, says she has volunteered to serve food at South Park Inn six times so far and even has brought her oldest child from Suffield along with her. Her husband also donates to the shelter. “I just like to do something good,” Alicia says.