Article and Photos by Michael DePietro
Last year, as the pandemic forced restaurants to shutter in-door seating for guests, it was often overlooked that similar restrictions were placed upon local food pantries and other service providers for those in need.
Heart, Love & Soul (939 Ontario Ave., Niagara Falls) recently resumed on-site dining for the first time since last March. During lunch hours, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays, meals are provided in to-go containers (including a prepackaged breakfast that is given to take home for the next day). Guests have the option of eating in the dining room or taking the meals home. The eat-in option follows continued COVID-19 guidelines: Up to 40 guests will be able to dine at any given time, tables are positioned 6 feet apart with Plexiglas barriers, and masks are required except when seated.
Until recently, only homeless individuals were able to eat inside the gathering room space located in the adjacent Daybreak Center. For others, meals were packaged to go.
Executive Director Mark Baetzhold says the loss of congregation and socialization was a huge loss for both the organization and those it serves.
“I feel like it had fundamentally changed this place because, in addition to what we're known for – providing meals and groceries; some case management, care coordination services – we're also a place that helps build community,” he says. “And to not be able to welcome people in and have people congregate and socialize, that really changed the dynamics here. So, it's great to now be open once again and be able to welcome people back and try and revitalize that sense of community.”
He acknowledges the return to that sense of community will be a slow process. The first week was understandably slower than usual as people acclimated themselves to the new arrangement. Nevertheless, fostering that communication is something that's foremost on his mind.
“I always used to try to come out during the lunch hour before the pandemic and sit with people, and that was a great part of the experience here,” Baetzhold says. “And now that we're gonna have that opportunity, I'm gonna make a point of doing that again and visiting and sitting with people and encouraging all of our staff to do the same. I think that's one of the ways we build trust and rapport.”
Board member Robert L. Bradley Jr., who runs Heart, Love & Soul’s Necessary Shop, is happy to be interacting with guests again.
Robert L. Bradley Jr., a longtime Heart, Love & Soul volunteer, and, since January, a board member, helps run the Necessary Shop. Once a month, guests can stop in and get toiletry items and cleaning products. He says the ability to communicate and spend time with guests enables the organization to provide better.
“It's just good to see people, and you could hear it; before we allowed the sitting, I would hear people say, ‘Well, when are they gonna reopen, when are they gonna reopen?’ ” he says. “When this was closed, people would come through the pantry, they would get the items that they need, and go back out the side door here. (Now) they can come over here and tell me what they need, and I will take care of it. And now we have the Daybreak, which is just a whole nother element of helping people.”
Officially opened at the beginning of this year, the Daybreak center is a one-stop center that provides many vital on-site services, including case management, acute nursing care and health care coordination, showers and laundry for those experiencing homelessness, housing linkage and referral, homeless street outreach, and connection and referral to partner agencies. Services are available from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays. Walk-ins are welcomed, but making appointments by phone at 282-5687 is encouraged.
“I mean, the things they do over there – (guests) have a nice place to go; a warm, clean shower,” Bradley says. “I see people come in with sour clothes. They take them back there, shower them up, give them new clothes and everything. And they know the people because they talk to them. You can see the relationship that they have with various people and how they know what they need.”
That lack of personal care and support has really impacted Heart, Love & Soul from an operations standpoint. Baetzhold says one of the major challenges caused by the pandemic was simply staying in touch with some of the organization's regular guests.
“There's a number who probably have not been out or who have not felt safe to come back,” he says. “I can think, right now, of a few people who we haven't seen since the start of the pandemic. So that's been a challenge trying to keep in touch with people. We have done more outreach. We have conducted some outreach and partnered with Niagara University and the Health Equity Task Force to try and just stay connected to people and let them know that we're available, that we've been thinking about them, that we're a phone call away or a telehealth visit away.”
As things return to normal, Heart, Love & Soul is continuing to look for ways to foster that sense of community. Earlier this month, volunteers from Grassroots Gardens built new accessible garden beds to add to the facility’s existing community garden. Baetzhold believes the garden can one day become a “true community asset.” He says the garden has produced vegetables that have been used in meals, something they’re hoping to increase. Future plans would see the inclusion of a greenhouse space to allow it to function year-round. He’s hoping to connect with the surrounding community so, in the future, it can have ownership of it.
“We envision that, in the future, it can be a garden that the community takes care of and maintains and also uses so people from the community can come in and gather what they need,” Baetzhold says.
Heart, Love & Soul’s community garden will be getting upgraded and will provide food and therapy for guests.
The garden is also set to provide a therapeutic aspect to Heart, Love & Soul – not just in a community building sense, but also health care-wise.
“Behavioral health specialists, occupational therapists, physical therapists can take their patients to the garden and incorporate it into their treatment plans,” Baetzhold says. “We've actually just identified a landscape architect to help us with that. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Western New York has generously given us some startup money to support the development of the garden. So, it's all good things.”
Of course, the pandemic affected Heart, Love & Soul in other ways, particularly fundraising. Fortunately, there are ways folks can assist.
“Our annual fundraiser that's usually held in April, we didn't hold it this year because of the pandemic. We've been planning a hybrid virtual/live event scheduled for Aug. 17 at Niagara University the dining commons,” Baetzhold says. “We have been planning on 100-125 people, (but) I think the capacity of the dining hall is 250 and we might be able to get up to that number or close to that number. It still remains to be seen how things turn out pandemic.”
An official announcement with more details will be released soon Baetzhold says.
There are a number of ways to help now. Donations can be made year-round at www.heartloveandsoul.org/donate. But the most significant means of helping is still volunteering.
Bradley spoke first-hand about the personal positivity experienced from doing so.
“It just makes you realize how blessed you are that, when you see people come who have a need – nobody makes fun, nobody looks down on them or anything. People are here to help and, here, we gotta listen to what makes a difference,” he says. “And you can feel it; you can see it. That's the reason why I'm here. … That's why I love the organization, for what it does. For folks who may not know just how to get things they need, this place is an advocate for them. … Whether it's nutrition, safety, medical; whether it's social service – doesn't make a difference. They will rise to the occasion and help people wherever they need.”