by Michael J. Freedman
Assistant Director of Public Relations
Manager of Online Content
St. George's Church is bustling on this Thursday evening in May. Those congregated come from all walks of life - young and old, white and black, Catholic and otherwise. Their appearances have been hardened by life's sometimes unfortunate circumstances.
As four college students approach the head of the room, a hush falls over the assemblage. First, a prayer. Then, the moment of truth: "Tonight, we will be serving grilled cheese sandwiches, cabbage and broccoli soup, as well as beef and vegetable stew," recites recent Niagara University graduate Kalani Personius.
It's going to be a good night. It is any time meat is on the menu, Personius says.
Truth is, Thursday nights have been pretty good here for months, ever since Personius and rising NU seniors Mary Gibson and Jessica Spellane started a soup kitchen at this longtime pillar of the Falls' east side. Their effort, along with that of the 20 or so Niagara students who have joined them, has brought much-needed nourishment and camaraderie to hundreds of disadvantaged community members on a weekly basis.
"I cannot tell you how desperate some parts of the city are for people to step up to the plate like these students have," acknowledges Joanne Lorenzo, who oversees programming at St. George's. "And not only have they come in with a willingness to feed the hungry, the students actually seem eager to listen to these folks, who may not have another person in the world to talk to."
The idea for the soup kitchen arose last fall when Lorenzo, looking to fill the church's only night without a community outreach program, reached out to Monica Saltarelli, a campus minister at NU. She was aware of the university's service-learning mission and wondered if Niagara might be interested in partnering.
"I called Monica and she told me that she was thinking about the exact same thing," Lorenzo recalls.
In need of a student leader for the project, Saltarelli recruited Personius, a member of NU's St. Vincent de Paul Society and the 2011 recipient of the Niagara University Student Government Association's Compassion Award. Personius jumped at the opportunity, signing up to organize volunteers, monitor budgets, plan menus and shop for food.
"Kalani is a natural leader," asserts Hadara Katarski, coach of the NU women's cross-country team that Personius captained last year. "She always demonstrates role model type behavior and puts others before herself. She is extremely responsible and fully dedicated to everything she does."
Eventually, Personius began mentoring other students, namely Spellane, Gibson and, later, Christa Mastro, '13, so as to enhance the initiative's sustainability.
The quartet decided that they wanted to do more than feed the hungry. Establishing personal connections became a primary goal. Personius informed potential student volunteers that if they were going to participate, they had to invest themselves for the whole semester. She didn't want students backing out after one or two appearances.
"I wanted the teams to be consistent on a weekly basis so that we weren't just servers for the people that came to eat," she explains. "I wanted them to get to know us, to have conversations with us and for it to be more of a community experience."
Spellane adds, "The most rewarding part for me was talking with all the people that came in for a meal. I loved sitting down and having a conversation with them. One man came up to me and said, 'Jessica, you're a good person,' which meant the world to me. All the people that come in for a meal are so thankful, and I really love this volunteer experience."
The soup kitchen opened at St. George's in November, giving the student leaders time to iron out the wrinkles before Christmas break. While the university recessed for the holidays, Personius emailed everyone who had expressed an interest in participating.
She heard back from only four people. So Personius did what any enterprising college student does when they find themselves in a bind: she called her friends.
Word spread quickly. Within weeks, Personius received an email from Chase Brooks, head coach of the men's soccer team, saying that he wanted his players to get involved.
Although desperate, Personius reiterated that the soccer players would be held to the same expectations as the other volunteers.
"They needed to prove to me that they weren't doing it for the kudos or volunteer hours, but for the outreach experience," Personius says. "I wanted to make sure that people were doing it for the right reasons and not because it would make them look good."
Saltarelli convinced Personius to give them a shot and the soccer team more than fulfilled its obligation, drawing additional volunteers in the process. Momentum gained. Students began taking part because their friends were involved or because they needed Learn and Serve hours. They stayed because they were making a difference.
"It started out as something that I did because I needed a few service hours," admits Kaylie Lamica, '14, a criminal justice major from Burke, N.Y. "After a while, I just wanted to go. I asked Kalani if I could keep coming and she kept me on the schedule."
Soon, there was a regular rotation of three five-student teams. A steady stream of 35-40 patrons frequented St. George's every Thursday night, drawn by an outdoor sandwich board sign and the aroma of Dr. Amelia Gallagher's homemade soup.
The group supplemented donations from the St. Vincent de Paul Society by selling concessions at home basketball games. One young man, who prefers to remain anonymous, made a $500 contribution to the cause. Desserts were donated by Panera Bread, Dunkin' Donuts and Tops.
On May 12, Personius graduated from Niagara University with a degree in French education, but not before receiving the department of religious studies' Blessed Frederic Ozanam Award, the Father James O'Keefe Medal for excellence in the study of French, and a Woman of Distinction Award from the Niagara Gazette. This September, she'll depart for Angers, France, where she'll teach English as a second language to elementary school students.
But that doesn't mean the soup kitchen will stop serving while Personius, the group's only upperclassman, is overseas. Far from it, say Spellane and Mastro (Gibson's participation has been limited by health issues).
"I couldn't imagine not being involved after the experiences I have had thus far," confirms Mastro, a gerontology major. "I am excited to come back and start things up again in September. I hope to see the project expand and grow to adapt to the needs of the community. Hopefully, we will be able to increase our involvement and interest in the project."
Those interested in assisting with the soup kitchen at St. George's should contact Joanne Lorenzo at 716-282-0908. Saltarelli, Spellane and Mastro may be reached through Niagara University's Office of Campus Ministry at 716-286-8409.