By Patrick J. Bradley
Senior Contributing Writer
Heart Love & Soul will celebrate a milestone in June: Four decades of providing essential services to people who need them most.
The celebration, of course, will feature something it does best: Introducing a new program to benefit those it serves.
The addition will be a community garden, but not the traditional kind where neighbors share space to grow summer vegetables. It will be a therapeutic community garden, a peaceful urban oasis where people can connect with nature in ways that enhance their quality of life and promote their physical and mental health.
Executive Director Mark Baetzhold said the professionally designed garden will serve another purpose as well by brightening the area where Heart Love & Soul is located.
"This is an intentional community beautification effort. In our own small way, we want to contribute to the vibrancy of the neighborhood," Baetzhold said.
Heart Love & Soul has been nourishing the bodies, minds and souls of people in need since 1983. Known for its innovative approaches to serving the hungry and homeless, it was founded by a prayer group at the former Sacred Heart Catholic Church when group members began collecting and distributing food to people who had lost their jobs during an economic downturn.
Over time, the organization opened a food pantry and installed a commercial kitchen on Pierce Avenue where it prepared hot food to be transported to area churches to feed the hungry.
In 2002, bolstered by the support of local businessmen James Glynn and Paul Joy, the agency purchased a former Salvation Army store at 939 Ontario Ave. The redesigned and completely renovated structure afforded Heart Love & Soul the space it needed to expand its food pantry while adding a dining room, nutrition program and many other services.
The most ambitious and innovative of those new offerings is the Daybreak Program, which debuted in February 2021. Daybreak provides onsite laundry and shower facilities, a community health nurse, homeless street outreach and case management services.
"Daybreak is an uplifting place," Baetzhold said. "We want to recognize and embrace the fundamental God-given dignity of the people who come, to try and live out the value of hospitality. I think it distinguishes us as a provider."
Heart Love & Soul continues to serve breakfast and lunch during the week, distribute essential household items including personal hygiene products, and provide monthly food boxes, said Marketing and Communications Manager Jillian Johnson.
“The dire need for our services is evident in the numbers,” Johnson said. “In 2022, our food pantry distribution increased over 40%. In the past 10 years, we have served over 451,000 meals through our dining room and provided over 865,900 meals through our food pantry.”
Baetzhold is quick to add that all agency services are provided in ways that are respectful of those it serves – people who struggle with food insecurity, poverty and homelessness. It’s an attitude that’s ingrained in the organization’s DNA.
Next month's anniversary festivities will honor both Heart Love & Soul’s donors and its guests, as the organization calls the people it serves.
"We have tons of activities planned for them," said development Director Jennifer Stahlman. “We want to ensure our guests get to participate. It's guaranteed to be lots of fun for them."
A June 8 donor event showcasing Heart Love & Soul’s programs, services and future plans and unveiling the new therapeutic community garden will cap the week's festivities.