Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Perfect Gift

Robin Komorek with daughter and husband
Robin Komorek, daughter & husband.
Robin Komorek of Waterville got her Christmas wish – to volunteer at Mother Marianne’s West Side Kitchen.

“She asked if I would give this to her for Christmas,” husband Chris said.

Daughter Toni Amodio came along, too, bringing a bowl of candy for every table and a huge tray of homemade cookies from her business, “Sweet Creations by Toni.”

Bob Schmelcher
Bob Schmelcher on echo harmonica.
Coordinator Ed Morgan with sister-in-law Rosalie Siuta.
Coordinator Ed Morgan with sister-in-law.
Volunteers welcomed guests, including children, to the soup kitchen, saying “Merry Christmas” and directing them to decorated tables while other volunteers in the kitchen dished out food and assembled trays that were quickly brought out by volunteer waiters and waitresses. Still other volunteers followed up with drinks and trays of pies and whipped cream. And in the background, Bob Schmelcher played Christmas carols on his echo harmonica – from Jingle Bells to Silent Night.

“This is a great bunch of volunteers,” noted Christmas Day Coordinator Ed Morgan, who is vice chairman of the soup kitchen advisory board. “They’re upbeat, friendly. Half of them I don’t even know. They’re very cool.”

“We ended up serving 189 meals, including 20 take-outs,” he added.

His sister-in-law, Rosalie Siuta, likes helping out on all the holidays. “It’s probably the best feeling in the world to be able to give back, and to help” people in need.

Elvira Turpin
Elf Elvira Turpin
Regular volunteer Elvira Turnpin dressed up as Santa’s elf. “I figured this would be nice for the kids.”

 Elvira recalled the time she was in a New York City shelter with her two infant daughters. That’s why she helps at West Side Kitchen four days a week and spends a fifth day at the Utica Salvation Army. “So I give back -- It’s from the heart.”

Daquan Forehand
Boy Scout Daquan Forehand
Utica Troop 101 Boy Scout Daquan Forehand, a student at MVCC who wants to be an EMT, volunteers on Wednesdays but decided to help at Christmas, too. “Christmas to me is basically about just giving back.”

Lorraine Haley and Dan Hoffman, who were friends in school, decided to come to the soup kitchen after reading about it in the newspaper. “I thought, it’s time to give back,” Lorraine said. “So we decided to come down and help out as much as we can.”

Cheryl Wakeel’s first exposure to the soup kitchen was on Christmas five years ago. It was such a moving experience that not only does she return every Christmas, but also helps out during the week, serving as crew chief on Wednesdays, and beginning in January, she’ll be there on Mondays, too.

cheryl Wakeel
Cheryl Wakeel
“I love it; it feels good to help out,” noted Vikki Commisso, who joined Cheryl and her son, Gregory Wakeel, prepping and dishing out food in the kitchen, along with Shirley Schmelcher and Kathleen Carter. “It makes me feel good, plus I meet wonderful people.”

Rick Caruso, who was helping Shirley Schmelcher put slices of pie on plates, said simply: “it’s Christmas. It’s good to share.”

Added Shirley, who was there with daughter Lynda and husband Bob: “It’s our way of giving back to the community.”

Michell Thurston, center, with daughters.
After hearing there was a need for volunteers, Michelle Thurston, a nurse tech in surgery at St. Elizabeth Medical Center, came with her daughters, Jordan Tartaglia, a student teacher, and Sara Tartaglia, an MVCC student who wants to be a social worker.

“We wanted to help out,” said Sara.

Perhaps Toni Amodio summed it up best for the volunteers:

“The best gift you could ever give someone is your time.”

photo album of Christmas volunteers

Monday, December 5, 2016

Students Seeking Their Paths

The season has been a tad busy, between deadlines for work, traveling to Franciscan meetings in Rome (Italy), Orlando, and Baltimore, and helping out at Mother Marianne’s West Side Kitchen; so I was looking forward to spending a morning with some bright high school seniors.

The occasion was the 16th annual School and Business Alliance (SABA) Breakfast, held Dec. 2 at Oneida-Herkimer-Madison BOCES on Middle Settlement Road in New Hartford.

SABA breakfast
SABA Breakfast. BOCES Photo by Cheri Derdzinski
Scores of students from various school districts got to talk careers with business and government leaders. I hosted a table for those interested in communications, media and photography. It was fun.

Two at my table were studying performing arts. A third student aspired to be a graphic designer. A fourth wanted to be a baker, and the fifth student was studying welding, which I found perplexing until he explained that for him, welding was an art form.

Dr. Attilio
Dr. M. Attilio. BOCES Photo / Cheri Derdzinski
The guest speaker at the breakfast was Dr. Michael Attilio, who pointed to one’s career and life journey as a line that may start out straight but soon veers off at angles and may even swing back on itself. There are influences along the way – such as mentors and people having a special impact. A beloved professor didn’t see biology major Attilio as a biologist, which prompted him to consider medicine. An Army colonel put him in charge of a clinic in Texas that demanded more administrative attention than practicing medicine – a skill he didn’t know he had and rather enjoyed and became quite good at. Then he was deployed to Afghanistan and started “dodging bullets and plugging holes,” getting to save lives and practice medicine like nowhere else in the world. And then his wife thought maybe he should move on to practicing medicine where he could be with the young family they had started. When they visited the Utica area as a possible relocation site, he immediately got a sense of community – a great place to raise a family. And now he is medical director for the Mohawk Valley Health System Medical Group.

To get a sense of the twists and turns along one’s life line, he offered a quote by World War Z author Max Brooks:

“Sometimes you find your path, sometimes it finds you.”

In other words, he said to laughter: “Everything important in life you can learn preparing for the Zombie apocalypse.”

Student. Photo/ C. Deredzinski
Zombies or not, the youths at my table were delightful; some came with an easy smile and a hint of joy in their demeanor; others were more serious, but with subtle humor behind their words. Virtually all of them were honor students, involved in a variety of school activities (from playing sports to cheerleading to performing in marching bands to serving on student councils). One enterprising young lady was holding down three part-time jobs. They also were active volunteers, especially at their churches.

SABA Breakfast
SABA Breakfast. BOCES Photo by Cheri Derdzinski
The SABA program shared their resumes in advance, and I was pleased to discover that the future baker spent part of the summer volunteering at Mother Marianne’s soup kitchen.

“I helped serve food… cleaned tables and swept the floor,” he noted on the resume. “It was a good learning experience.”

Yes, it is. it’s an experience where volunteers learn something about themselves and about people in need.

Not unlike SABA, they learn about finding paths and paths finding them.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Everybody Becomes Family

Thanksgiving at a soup kitchen

Kevin Shelanskey
Kevin Shelanskey
Kevin Shelanskey called the 27 volunteers together to give last-minute Thanksgiving Day instructions prior to opening the doors at Mother Marianne’s West Side Kitchen.

Before assigning people to their posts, he first made an appeal.

“I just met a family out there that doesn’t have enough money to buy diapers for their children. Can we come up with some money and get diapers for them?”

The volunteers began reaching into their pockets and pulling out one, five, ten and 20 dollar bills. Within seconds, $113 was handed over to two women who volunteered to go on a diaper run. Trish LaBella and Lisa Morgan returned with enough diapers and baby wipes to hand out to several families who came in from the freezing rain to enjoy a traditional turkey dinner with all the trimmings.

“It’s a side effect of what we’re doing, but it’s awesome,” said Kevin, a counselor at John Bosco House who chaired the soup kitchen’s Thanksgiving effort.

Photo Gallery
Not quite sure how many people to expect, chef Bill Bogan, Kevin and crew prepared over a dozen turkeys, 60 lbs of potatoes, 20 lbs of stuffing, plus vegetables, squash, sweet potatoes. And, thanks in large part to the Knights of St. John, some 135 pies were donated.

Kevin said they ended up serving about 100 people. Greeters wished them a Happy Thanksgiving and directed them to sit at a table of their choice. Servers quickly followed with trays of a full turkey dinner, and before they were finished, New Hartford Troop 4 Boy Scouts Zachery Connolly and Christian Sierson made the rounds with trays of desserts and whipped cream.

Several families came to volunteer, all having a similar purpose:
  • as parishioners, “we feel good to give back to the community; I feel pride,” as Michele Connolly noted;
  • “to give back and see smiling faces,” as Giovana Annatone said;
  • “to help out” and “teach their children” about assisting people in need, as Vikki Commisso put it.
Kevin himself said something similar, pointing to “community service” as a way to keep youth well-balanced and grounded, as he watched his high school freshman daughter, Ashley, pitch in. “It hit home for her,” he noted, especially after seeing someone she knew from school come in for a hot meal.

Perhaps volunteer Patty Nessel, there with family and friends, summed it up best:

“Everybody becomes family, including people you don’t even know.”

Snow Day Brings Out Young Volunteers

Monday was a snow day, with many school closings in the greater Utica area.

That meant more youngsters would be showing up with the adults at Mother Marianne’s West Side Kitchen. And three of them, it turned out, were volunteers.

Volunteers Moriah, Linda and Sophia
Moriah and Sophia with grandmother, Linda VanDusen.
Moriah, a 17-year-old student at Proctor High School, and her 11-year-old sister, Sophia, decided to join their grandmother, Linda VanDusen, a regular Monday volunteer. Sophia said she wanted to help because, as her sister, Moriah, put it: “I heard they were short-handed and there were people in need.”

That was because Volunteer Coordinator Katie Koscinski, OFS, put out an urgent call for help when it looked as though the snowstorm was sidelining several Monday regulars (especially when new volunteer Kathy Leslie showed up to an empty building).

Before long, a bevy of volunteers joined Kathy and began donning hairnets and disposable gloves, preparing food, prepping serving trays, brewing coffee, making hot chocolate, putting out ice tea and punch, and setting up serving stations.

Joshua and David Schiavi
Joshua and David Schiavi
Among them were David Schiavi, a 6th grade teacher at Conkling School, and his 13-year-old son, Joshua, who took advantage of the snow day to help out.

Volunteering at a soup kitchen is a practical part of Joshua’s social studies curriculum, David noted.

Quipped Joshua: “I do it because my mom wants me to.”

Joshua is a bit of a celebrity at the parish. As his dad put it: “Father (Richard) Dellos saw an essay he wrote on fatherly love, and asked him to read it at the Father’s Day masses.” So “he memorized it and gave it in church at every mass.”

Up to then, Joshua had no interest in public speaking, noted David, who also is the speech and debate coach at Proctor High. “Father Dellos kick-started it.” Joshua just won second place in an area speech contest, and has his sight on state competition.

Kathy Leslie
Kathy Leslie
Meanwhile, some 76 adults and 10 children came in from the wind and snow for a meal at the soup kitchen.

“They help a lot of people,” including struggling families, noted the new volunteer, Kathy. Remembering volunteering with her grandmother at parish events, she said: “I thought it would be good to come in and help out.”

Meanwhile, 11-year-old Sophia told her grandmother she really enjoyed helping out.

“She wants to keep her hairnet and put it in her memory book.”

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Seeing God in Those on Margin of Society

Lepers were once truly afflicted outcasts, and because of that, the term is sometimes used for dramatic effect in describing those on the margins of modern society – such as the poor, the homeless, the disabled. In 13th century Italy, it came as a shock for many, and an inspiration for others, when Francis of Assisi saw instead the image of God in lepers and took it upon himself to embrace them.

Katie Koscinski
Katie Koscinski, OFS
Katie Koscinski, OFS, has come to have a similar high regard for those who are nourished at Mother Marianne’s West Side Kitchen. Besides being the recently appointed volunteer coordinator, Katie is a Secular Franciscan who was involved in the soup kitchen’s founding.

“I don't want to just give them food for their stomachs. I want them to feel loved, welcomed and respected. To me each person who walks into the kitchen is Jesus.”

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

An array of faces, and that's just the volunteers

Utica College volunteers Dana, Kiersten and Alyssa
Dana, Kiersten and Alyssa
It was their first day volunteering at Mother Marianne’s West Side Kitchen.

The trio of graduate students from Utica College will be back every Wednesday for the next two months as part of the master’s degree program in occupational therapy. They prepared trays to hand out to guests who packed the soup kitchen Wednesday, Sept. 21.

“I think it’s a really great program (here),” noted Dana Simpson, who was there with fellow first-year grad students Kiersten Stone and Alyssa Almeida.

Shirley Schmelcher
Shirley Schmelcher
Bob Surprenent
Bob Suprenent
While the three were new to the soup kitchen, there were a few Wednesday regulars.

Among them were Lynda Schmelcher and her parents, Shirley and Bob Schmelcher. Lynda was serving food along with Elvira Turpin (who volunteers four days a week).

Shirley was helping with preparations in the kitchen along with Bob Surprenent (who volunteers Mondays and Wednesdays, prepping food, doing dishes, “whatever needs doing” and “enjoying it").

Elvira Turpin and Lynda Schmelcher
Elvira Turpin & Lynda Schmelcher
Xaverian Brother Leonard Wojtanowski, CFX, a retired teacher, was busy washing dishes and putting away pots and pans.

“It’s really rewarding,” notes Shirley. “For some guests, this may be the only hot meal of the day.”

She and her family are “giving back” because “the community has been good to us,” especially when they had operated a roller skating rink decades ago.

The Wednesday crew chief, Cheryl Wakeel, was popping up everywhere, including spending a moment with Cindy Green, a work life skills community assistant from Oneida-Lewis ARC.
Br. Leonard
Br. Leonard

“I find satisfaction from helping here in the soup kitchen,” Cheryl says. “It’s a feeling I can’t describe. I get so much more back than I give.”

Meanwhile, Bob Schmelcher was out in the dining hall entertaining guests on his “echo harmonica,” a semi-circular contraption boasting seven harmonicas. He was showing off with a performance of Edelweiss.

Like many of the new regulars, Bob and his family have been volunteering for a couple of months.

“It was my wife’s idea.”

Cheryl Wakeel & Cindy Green
Cheryl Wakeel & Cindy Green

Bob Schmelcher with echo harmonica
Bob Schmelcher with echo harmonica