GREENFIELD — Thirty-one-year-old Eric Stout thanked the petite lady behind the table profusely when she handed him a box of pastries to take with him when he left the Kenneth Butler Memorial Soup Kitchen on Friday.
“Everyone here has been so nice,” said Stout, who is currently homeless and living in Greenfield after walking there recently from Lawrence.
Stout was among the first patrons to dine at the Greenfield soup kitchen since it reopened June 8 after a lengthy closure due to the COVID pandemic — a 50-month-long closure, to be exact.
“We’re just so happy to have everybody back,” said the kitchen’s director, Jill Ebbert, on Friday afternoon.
The kitchen’s dining room promptly closed in March 2020 at the onset of the COVID pandemic, providing take-away meals to patrons through the front door instead.
When the staff tried to reopen last month, they quickly shut it down in less than a week when Ebbert came down with COVID.
Her over-exuberance for reconnecting with the patrons she missed so dearly may have been to blame.
Ebbert’s known for offering up hugs to those who stop in for a hot meal, so this month she’s playing it safe for awhile.
“I’ll probably keep my distance for awhile,” said the big-hearted director, but that doesn’t mean she won’t be keeping tabs on the people who walk through her door.
To call the Kenneth Butler Memorial Soup Kitchen a soup kitchen is a bit of an understatement.
Patrons and volunteers say it’s more of a love kitchen. A hug kitchen. A place where people can get much more than a free meal.
“The first time I came here, I couldn’t get over it. Jill and Kathy and the rest of them love these people so much, and the volunteers do too,” said Betty Shewman, the pint-sized volunteer who handed Stout and other patrons their pastries on Friday.
Shewman feels honored to help out at a place that provides a sense of community to those who may not otherwise feel connected.
“We’re all people. We all need each other. As life happens, any one of us could end up needing a place like this. It makes you count your blessings,” she said.
Ebbert said the reopening has been going slowly, with a number of patrons continuing to take their meals to go versus staying and dining at the kitchen. But she hopes that begins to change as word continues to spread.
“On the first day, we served about 130 people, but less than 30 of them were eating in. I’m hoping it will turn back around, where many of them come in to get the true experience,” she said.
Stout was enjoying the true experience at lunchtime Friday, as he enjoyed a hot meal of macaroni and cheese with a side of fruits and steamed veggies.
“The people here are very hospitable. It’s something I’m not used to, especially being on the streets,” he said, as he stuffed the pastries into his black backpack.
Stout said he’s been homeless since around the time COVID hit, trying to get back on track since losing his job as a mover.
“I want to get my life straightened out here. I feel like that’s what God’s plan is. I just followed my intuition to come here (to Greenfield) and I ended up here (at the soup kitchen), and I’m very thankful for that,” he said.
Ebbert is thankful, too, that the community she loves is slowly making their way back into the soup kitchen, back into the community she’s so lovingly created to support those who need a helping hand.
“We want to give them more than food. We want to get to know them, to talk to them, to love on them, and I can’t wait to get back to that,” she said.
Serving meals in the dining room is also more practical that serving carry-out meals, she said.
“The carry-out supplies are very expensive, and I worry about all the waste going to landfills,” said Ebbert. “Plus, they’re eating up all our space in the kitchen.”
The soup kitchen is serving more meals than ever before — an average of 140 or so a day compared to 110 or so a day before COVID hit.
Ebbert said more volunteers and donations are needed to continue serving the community.
“Cash donations are preferred because I can use them to buy any type of food at $1.40 a pound from Gleaner’s Food Bank,” she said.
To donate or volunteer, visit kbmsk.org or email Ebbert at [email protected].