The sky blue walls and floors, crisp white tablecloths and vases filled with autumn leaves may evoke memories of better times for visitors to the St. Vincent De Paul Kitchen. Whether they are homeless or just low on grocery funds, the public can come in and enjoy this warm atmosphere along with a warm meal. For a few hours every day, the kitchen gives those in need a shelter from the cold and something to fill their stomachs.
The St. Vincent De Paul Kitchen, located on East Jackson Street, is one of the organizations in Wilkes-Barre that aims at tackling the issues of hunger and homelessness in this community. In the past few years, the kitchen has seen its daily guest count increase to an average of 300 people.
Caitlin Czeh, Campus Interfaith coordinator at Wilkes, noticed this increase in need within the community. She said organizations like St. Vincent are overwhelmed by the growing numbers of hungry families.
“The organizations are doing as much as they can, and they are saturated,” Czeh said.
Czeh aims at tackling awareness and relief for these issues during this year’s hunger and homelessness week at Wilkes. A variety of events will be taking place to help shed light on the struggles going on in the Wilkes-Barre community.
Awareness of these issues among the student body is important because of the locality, Czeh said.
“Hunger and homelessness isn’t limited to third world countries. It’s visible just down the street, on the square,” Czeh said. “It’s right here, it’s very present, we can’t just turn a blind eye.”
Czeh said homelessness in Wilkes-Barre is prominent and difficult to ignore. The main reasons it is especially prominent in this area is the size of Wilkes-Barre and the draw of the many agencies that provide aid locally.
“It’s very visible in the way it’s very visible in large cities,” Czeh said.
Czeh has a personal connection to homelessness, since her sister experience living on the streets will Czeh was in graduate school. This experience gave Czeh emotional incentive to make a difference.
“Hunger and homelessness is an issue that’s close to my heart,” Czeh said.
Czeh tried to help her sister by providing money, but she struggled with not always knowing where her sister was or if she was OK.
“It’s definitely an experience I don’t wish on anyone,” Czeh said. “It was very hard.”
Czeh has taken this first-hand experience and applied to her work with relief efforts. She said one of the most touching experiences she has had was when she worked with the Commission on Economic Opportunity to pass out boxes of food for Thanksgiving. She witnessed immense gratitude for her efforts as she delivered these packages to local residents.
“A good number of them cried actually, because I think they were not aware of everything they received in the bags, and I think it’s always a surprise to them to realize how much they’re given and that people would take time to come out and serve them,” Czeh said.
It was clear to Czeh that these people needed the nonjudgmental aid the volunteers were providing
“They feel so low because of the situation they’re in and they don’t think that anyone would want to help them, so they’re always very touched.”The culture at St. Vincent De Paul Kitchen is a good example of struggling community members and the effort to provide aid.
Mary Burns has volunteered at the kitchen for 19 years, and has seen a lot of struggles in that time. She considers it to be her most rewarding volunteer experience because of the stories she has heard from people.
“I feel this is a worthy thing to do,” Burns said. “I volunteer in a lot of other things too, but this is my favorite.”
Some of the more moving cases include families with children, which Burns has seen a great increase of. She said many people apologize for being there. Often times they have never been in that type of situation, but issues of losing jobs and savings forced them there.
Burns sees some veterans at the kitchen who are homeless, which is especially upsetting for her.
“That’s a shame to think that they went and fought for us, and now they don’t even have a home,” Burns said.
She said the only true way to see the positive impact these organizations are having is to experience it first-hand
“I don’t think people would really realize that unless they came here and volunteered,” Burns said. “I think people do need to come here and take a good look and see what’s going on.”
Despite the bright composition of the sky blue walls at the kitchen, the issues of hunger and homelessness seem to be a darker issue in the community. Volunteers at Wilkes and these local organizations will continue to work on bringing light to the gloomy state of the hungry and homeless in Wilkes-Barre.