NEW BRITAIN - “Sad” and “heartwarming” were the words 11-year-old Kristina Taylor used to describe feeding the homeless at the Friendship Service Center this Wednesday.
Taylor and seven of her classmates from John Wallace Middle School in Newington spent four hours working inside the soup kitchen at the shelter, which serves lunch to people off the streets.
The fifth-grader’s mixed feelings on the experience could be attributed to her face-to-face interaction with people dealing with unfathomable challenges, while simultaneously nourishing them in their time of need.
“I’m really caring so I like to give back what people give to me,” Taylor said as she learned how to open a can of green beans from JWMS science teacher Jessica Morin.
Morin serves as advisor to the school’s Make A Wish Club. She organized Wednesday’s outing when club members expressed their desire to volunteer at the Friendship Center. This request came last fall, after the group had sent a young girl with a gastrointestinal illness and her family to Disney World.
“We finished our wish in October and they really wanted to do something else for the community,” Morin explained.
Their first visit to the Arch Street facility came back in December, when they delivered 16 bags of toys and food to residents served by its supportive housing program. This initial introduction into the lives of people less fortunate primed them for this week’s lengthier and more demanding visit.
“This will hopefully give them a little more empathy towards others,” Morin said. “I want them to understand that anybody can help out, no matter your situation in life. There’s always someone out there who needs it.”
Kitchen Director Gerry Waldo guided students around his workspace Wednesday. They were joined by church volunteers who work the kitchen once a month, serving their homemade meat sauce with pasta.
“It took a lot of planning to get them here,” Waldo said of the youth.
If there was one lesson he hoped the experience taught it was compassion.
“No matter how unfortunate you think you are, there’s always someone out there who has it worse,” Waldo said. “I want them to see their glasses as half full, not half empty. They’re doing a wonderful job here.”
Students began their morning carrying shipments from a Foodshare truck into the facility. Then the hairnets went on and boxes of noodles were emptied into large bins and cans of vegetables, opened. People started lining up for lunch late morning and the kids took turns serving. Dish duty followed.
As they worked a man walked off the street and into the kitchen, asking Waldo for help. As they stacked lunch trays in the main dining room another man slept sprawled out in a chair, catching a nap before lunch. Meanwhile, a toddler played with a toy on the floor.
“We can see what they go through compared to what we go through,” noted sixth-grader Sreya Joseph.
“Seeing the people makes me sad,” added Leah Pouliot, another sixth-grader. “It feels good to help them because they really need it.”
The students turned in class assignments early and planned to make up the morning lessons they missed in order to take part in Wednesday’s trip.
Mya Smith, one of the group’s youngest members, needed assistance fastening on her hair net before food service began. Classmates’ hands came in from all directions, eager to provide resolve. Passing out rolls to people in the lunch line an hour later, Smith shared a laugh with Ronald Lugo, a formerly homeless resident sprinkling cheese on his pasta.
In that moment, they were both just people sharing a laugh.
Erica Schmitt can be reached at 860-801-5097, or firstname.lastname@example.org.