A chance meeting between a teenage girl and a homeless woman has resulted in the underprivileged in Cleveland getting free meals on weekends — something most agree the city has needed for decades.
Lindsey Armstrong, 17, and her family have made arrangements with The Salvation Army to use its Cleveland facility on Inman Street to provide food for the homeless on Saturdays, through their nonprofit agency, The Family Kitchen.
For years homeless individuals in Cleveland had to settle for a meal a day through the local Community Kitchen and breakfast for the few who made it into the Cleveland Emergency Shelter. Both are closed on weekends.
But thanks to an observant, sociable and generous teen with a heart for helping others, Saturdays for the homeless now include a hearty breakfast, which experts believe is the most important meal of the day.
It all started a few months ago, according to the Bradley Central High School senior who runs on the girls’ cross country team. Lindsey explained, “We have morning runs and we have the same route every morning. Every single morning there was a woman sitting on a bench downtown in front of the Bank of Cleveland. I noticed sometimes she had an apple and sometimes she didn’t.
“Seeing her every single day in the same situation made me want to reach out to her. I eat breakfast twice a day sometimes when I’m running, and she wasn’t eating breakfast even once — so why not help her? So one day I didn’t have practice and I decided to go down there before school. I brought her a bagel or muffin — I can’t remember. But I sat down beside her, put my hand out and said, ‘Hi, I’m Lindsey!’ And it all went from there.”
Lindsey said for the first two months she and the homeless woman had breakfast together every other week, then every Tuesday, adding, “We’d talk about books. She loves to read! She’d go to the library almost every day and rearrange the books back in order.”
Out of curiosity, Lindsey said she asked the woman why she didn’t eat breakfast at the Community Kitchen. The woman explained there were no breakfast arrangements. Volunteers at the Community Kitchen are busy preparing a noon lunch in the mornings.
“She said they only serve one meal a day Monday through Friday,” Lindsey continued. “At first I just sat there. Then I said, ‘OK.’ She said, ‘You didn’t know that?’ I said no. Then I went home and said, ‘OK Mom, we have to start making breakfast for the homeless on Saturday mornings. Let’s start with that and then do three meals a day if we can. Can we start with breakfast?”
Her mother, Kristi, seeing her daughter’s passion and compassion, readily agreed and the two made 48 muffins for the following Saturday to feed the homeless at Johnston Park. But they soon found out, as Lindsey said, “Forty-eight muffins is definitely not enough whenever people have not eaten since noon yesterday and some haven’t eaten for three days.”
At this point, Lindsey had the full support of both her parents and younger brother, Christian, who were using their own funds, resources, time and energy to take on a problem that had gone unresolved for far too long.
“The first weekend was Bradley Central High School students — freshmen to seniors,” Kristi said. “Every single week since then three kids — Jake Truelove, Morgan Mitchell and Collin Gwaltney, besides Lindsey — have been there every single week. Different church groups, different youth groups, our family and two other families have come on board with us.”
When asked about any reluctance to take on such an overwhelming task, Kristi responded, “There was no hesitation whatsoever. Lindsey came home and told us about the woman and her story. We went out, paid for several packs of muffins and made breakfast. I’m not a cook, but I’ll do what I can. Bob’s the cook. But I ended up making them and Lindsey would meet a friend at Johnston Park to distribute them.”
But Lindsey was already thinking about another venue to provide more than breakfast at the public park. As an intern at the Salvation Army she said she asked Joel Rogers, the Salvation Army’s program director in Cleveland, if her family could utilize the Inman Street facilities to feed the homeless lunch on Saturdays.
“A part of the internship program is to coordinate a community outreach,” Lindsey explained. “I wasn’t thinking about that at the time. I was just doing this. I told Mr. Rogers, ‘I need you to talk to the board and do what you have to do. See if we can we use the facility.’ In the Salvation Army’s funding they have enough funds for one meal a week. So they cover Sunday night. So you have Friday night, all day Saturday and most of the day Sunday when people are hungry and needing food. Ruthie Forgie, the sergeant-at-arms, got back with us and said ‘You’re more than welcome to use the place. We can’t give you a penny but we can give you the place.”
The Armstrongs were ecstatic. The family started thinking about an appropriate name to call their outreach initiative. According to Lindsey, it was her dad Bob, who is on the board of the Salvation Army, who was first to come up with the name The Family Kitchen. Coincidentally, another group of supporters suggested the very same name, giving Lindsey added reason to decide in favor of The Family Kitchen.
“My father was suggesting it, another group we had just met was suggesting it and I said, ‘You know what? This was founded by three families, we’ve created a new family and we are all a family in the body of Christ.’ So, it started with our family, then we grabbed two other families (Billy, Stephanie, Jacob and Gabriel Stowe, and David, Jami, Tyler and Micha Hicks) and created this huge family within the community. So the focus is family — the Family Kitchen!”
This is not to imply that finding resources and organizing a weekend feeding program for the needy is without its challenges. For example, Bob said he lost his job unexpectedly on April 29. But the family says it is not about what a person has, but rather about what they are willing to give to help others that really counts.
“It’s not a burden at all,” Bob said. “They’re like our family. We enjoy doing it. This is just the first step — to feed them, communicate with them and relate to them. We’ve earned their trust. The next step will be to get funding to run a program to have housing for them, to have skilled workers working with them to show them how to use their hands. So many of them are in the woods hiding. They’re in ‘tent cities,’ as they call it.”
With the recent awarding of two state grants totaling $570,000 to replace the roof on the Cleveland Community Center ($75,000) and to pay for new sidewalks, pedestrian crossing improvements and concrete paths in the county ($495,000), progress is being made to improve the living conditions for underdeveloped areas of Cleveland. Still, the Armstrongs are asking if more can be done by the affluent in the community to help those in need.
“It’s really sad to me that we have multimillion dollar churches in Cleveland and they seem more worried about how big and beautiful the church looks than looking outside the window and seeing the poor kid across the street that’s starving,” Bob said. “We’ve been in that position in the big churches. We’ve seen it. It gets to the point where you have to do something. So we’re not stopping. This is something our family is going to do for the rest of our lives.”
The family said they plan to file for nonprofit status for the kitchen once they can get more assistance and support.
“We need all the help we can get,” Bob said.
“Our goal is three meals a day, seven days a week,” Kristi added. “If people want to donate we need plastic forks, spoons, knifes, cups, plates, napkins, any kind of meats, big canned goods — everything.”
“Some people are already donating but we’re still trying to get the word out,” Bob said. “It’s mostly young people that are helping us and it’s not the big churches but the little churches that are giving us the most. We appreciate everyone’s help. I would say before the year is out we will be serving close to 250 to 300 people, easy.”
With hungry people walking miles to get a decent meal, the family said there is also a need for a 15-passenger van so they could run routes to pick up the needy — seniors, handicapped, those with small children — to enjoy a meal.
“I love people,” Lindsey said. “I feel like this is what we’re supposed to do. When you have the resources at your fingertips for something like this, there is no reason not to do it. I have a mom who can talk to anybody and a dad who can cook anything and a little brother, 9 years old, who is already giving out food and know these (homeless) people by name? Why not take advantage of all that?”
The Family Kitchen is currently delivering breakfast in Johnston Park and other needy areas in Cleveland, from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. on Saturdays as well as lunch from noon to 2 p.m. at the Salvation Army on Inman Street every Saturday.
For further information, contact Kristi or Lindsey Armstrong at 423-653-7952 or 310-2059, or visit www.thefamilykitchen.org.