Wednesday, May 19, 2010

50,000 Blessings and Counting

Some might say it’s not easy being a do-gooder.

Whether it’s hard or not, those involved in ministries like soup kitchens have a different attitude. And it opens them up to being surprisingly enriched.

Take for example, the volunteers at Mother Marianne’s West Side Kitchen, who this past month broke the 50,000-meal milestone.

“By the end of April, we had served 50,987 meals,” kitchen supervisor and volunteer coordinator Vicki Montalbano noted. “Already this year, we’ve seen a 30 percent increase over last year at this time.”

The increase in noontime meals came as no surprise, she said.

“What did come as a surprise was the over 50,000 blessings that have flowed from the privilege of serving. Volunteers express to me every day the blessings they have received from working with each other and our guests. Our guests express the same. God and the community have been very generous to the kitchen. As we pray daily that the need for our mission to feed the hungry will decrease, we also give prayers of joyful thanksgiving to able to come together as Mother Marianne's family, volunteers and guests alike. After all, ‘all are welcome at Mother Marianne’s West Side Kitchen’. And it shows!”

ACCROSS TOWN there were blessings of another sort this month at The Salvation Army and at the Rescue Mission of Utica.

At the Army's 125th Anniversary celebration May 10, guest speaker Donna Donovan, publisher of The Observer-Dispatch, said she was inspired by the evening's frequent references to living the Gospel and added one of her favorite quotes, oft-attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.

In 1885, Salvation Army officers arrived to rousing crowds and were pelted with eggs. The 125th anniversary told a different story, with Congressman Michael Arcuri and Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente showing up to praise the Army's untiring work, and with Capt. Frank Picciotto, the local officer and pastor, mentioning how at Christmas they visited 1,900 senior citizens in nursing homes, gave food to 585 families, and provided gifts to 1,060 children.

At the Rescue Mission's 16th Annual Alumni Banquet May 17, graduates of the residential treatment program gave witness to the life-changing power of faith.

Pointing to the evening’s theme, “out of darkness into the light,” staffer and emcee Ernie Talerico said that overcoming addictions was just like walking into the light. And God makes it all possible, he told some 150 attendees. The banquet was dedicated to the memory of graduate Patrick Marley and included the presentation of a memorial plaque to his parents and siblings.

“It’s just a wonderful community here,” said Marley’s sister, Diana. “We will always love and appreciate everyone here at the Rescue Mission for what they did for my brother…They rescued Pat.”

Another highlight was the presentation of the Clarence Seaburg Scholarship, named after a former executive director, to a graduate seeking to advance his education. Chaplain Rick Johnson presented this year’s award to Utican Tom Salsbury, who is pursuing a nursing degree at Mohawk Valley Community College while working as an emergency room nurse’s aide.

“I started to volunteer at the hospital while I was here, and I loved it,” Salsbury said.

The evening featured testimonies by other program graduates who consistently pointed to the Mission’s faith-based approach as making a life-changing impact.

“I’d like to begin by thanking the Lord,” said Eric, who came in from Connecticut where he is now an assistant manager at a local business and has reunited with his family. He spent five months at the Mission after being released from prison. At first, “I didn’t want to be here,” he recalled. But then he discovered that God wasn’t done with him. “He has exciting things in store for each and every one of us.”

It has been three years since he was in the residential treatment program, said another graduate, Dale. And while there, he decided to bake a birthday cake for his niece. That led to being asked to bake a cake for a staffer’s birthday, and people started saying, “you have a real talent.”

Working through the Mission’s Learning Center, he was able to apply to the Culinary Institute of America. He graduated with an associate’s degree there last September and is now pursuing his bachelor’s in culinary arts.

“I owe it all to the glory of God…and you guys here at the Rescue Mission…”

Another graduate, Renard, said simply: “I was a broken soul. What the Rescue Mission did was to encompass the soul of the man.” Now a licensed practical nurse, he noted: “The Rescue Mission taught me to overcome my problems rather than have problems overcome me.”

A fourth graduate drew rousing applause when he said: “Tonight, I have been about five and a half years clean off drugs and alcohol.” And he is working toward getting his CASAC license to become a certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor.

The last impromptu testimony came not from a graduate, but from the Rev. Barrett Lee, who, fresh out of the seminary, spent two years as a counselor and care provider at the Mission’s Addictions Crisis Center. He thanked the staff for giving him an education he could never have gotten in school.

“They take it out of the text book and put it into reality. That’s what these guys do.”

That experience was enriching. A blessing. Because it led him to become a “street pastor” and start St. James Mission, a ministry to street people and the poor in Utica. He's a kindred soul to the soup kitchen volunteers serving the working poor, the jobless and and the homeless of West Utica.