By JAIME STUDD
Recorder News Staff
It's 10:30 a.m. on a cold and drizzly Monday, and though the doors to the soup kitchen run out of the basement of the Amsterdam Masonic Lodge are not due to officially open for another hour, nearly a dozen people have already come in search of a warm meal, and nearly just as many volunteers are working steadily to prepare and serve just that.
"Sometimes they come early," said volunteer Donna Jablonski. "If the food is ready, we serve them. If we're here, we open the door and we let them in."
Jablonski is one of a group of dedicated volunteers who help staff the soup kitchen two days a week, and who have done so faithfully since it first opened its doors nearly three years ago.
"There's a core group of about 10 that's been here from the beginning," Jablonski said.
Organized and staffed by a coalition of area churches, including St. Mary's, St. Stanislaus and Trinity Lutheran Church in Amsterdam and St. Stephen's Catholic Church in Hagaman, the kitchen serves nearly 200 people every week.
They are able to do so, the volunteers say, through the continued generosity of not only the churches and their parishioners, but area businesses as well.
On Monday, Walmart in Amsterdam lent its support to the soup kitchen in the form of a $2,500 donation presented by Store Manager Ryan Dunphy.
Dunphy said the store makes a concerted effort to support local charitable organizations like the soup kitchen, making similar donations, of either money or product, nearly every month.
"It all depends on what's needed," Dunphy said.
It was need that the Masonic Lodge soup kitchen was born out of, originally organized in response the impending closure of St. Casimir's Church and the concern that it might also mean the end of the AMEN Soup Kitchen it had sponsored.
"They thought they were going to have to close," said St. Mary's Rev. John Medwid. "We weren't sure what was going to become of that."
Thankfully, Medwid noted, that kitchen remains in service and is currently being run out of St. Luke's Church.
Medwid said his group now works in conjunction with other area soup kitchens, including St. Luke's and those run by Crossroads Community Church and the Salvation Army, to ensure that at least one facility is providing a warm meal to all those in need on each day of the week.
The Masonic Lodge kitchen is open on Mondays and Wednesdays from 11:30 p.m. to 1 p.m.
"We try to cover as many days as we can," Medwid said.
"It's really the support of a number of churches and organizations ... and the volunteers. They're very dedicated," he added. "They really have kept it going with a lot of their own personal effort."
That effort has doubled in recent months with the closing of Crystal Ristorante, which used to supply the kitchen with a large portion of its meals, forcing the volunteers to take on the added responsibility of actually preparing the meals.
A dedicated few arrive as early as 8:30 in the morning to begin meal preparations on days the kitchen is open.
"When we don't have it, the volunteers will make it," Jablonski said.
The raw materials for the meals area also donations, with some coming from the Regional Food Bank and others from area grocery stores like Price Chopper.
On Monday, delicious looking pastries lined a dessert cart, just feet away from fold-up tables piled high with bread products that could be taken home -- all of it gifted.
Thanks to those donations, noted volunteer Carol Slezak, the soup kitchen has been able to operate on as little as $300 per month.
Though organized primarily as a resource for Amsterdam's homeless and hungry, the soup kitchen, as many noted, is nearly as much about the people as it is about the food.
"It's not really a homeless thing. It's more like a community thing," Jablonski said, noting that many of the kitchen's patrons are elderly residents from the nearby Theodore Roosevelt Senior Apartments.
"It's so much more than just food," Medwid said.
Slezak and Jablonski tried to detail just how deeply the volunteers at the kitchen care about the many people who have become so much a part of their daily lives.
"I've gotten to know all the patrons fairly well over the last few years," Jablonski said.
"I know who drinks what and how they drink their coffee."
Birthdays are marked with a cupcake and a candle.
Christmas is celebrated with a raffle of sorts. The tickets, of course, are free.
Mugs full of candy appear in honor of that season, as well -- small tokens of kindness and generosity.
"We try to do something special for kids," said Jablonski.
The volunteers themselves often purchase items when they see a need -- a sturdy pair of boots, a warm coat, a new pair of jeans.
"We get new people all the time," said Slezak. "It's sad. They'll come in and tell us their stories."
"The volunteers here are very generous," she added.
Among the most generous with their time, the volunteers noted, is 82-year-old Joe Gavel.
"He's the one who really keeps the place going," said Slezak.
Gavel is responsible for collecting the various supplies and donations each week. He has trouble estimating just how many miles he puts on his car on a weekly basis.
He also has difficulty finding the words to describe why he remains so dedicated to the task, one he readily admits he was hesitant to take on in the first place.
Now, Gavel indicated, he can't imagine doing anything else.