It’s 4 o’clock on a Tuesday and the dinner line outside Over-The-Rhine’s St. Anthony Center has already started to form. The Republic Street building—owned and operated by the Franciscan Friars, a Catholic religious order of men—has, since 2017, been a hub for multiple nonprofits serving the homeless and poor (among them, the Mary Magdalene House and the Center for Respite Care). But those lines forming at breakfast and dinnertime each day are for an organization dedicated to feeding the neighborhood’s hungry—the St. Francis Seraph Ministries (SFSM) soup kitchen, in business since 1985.
It takes a small army to keep this soup kitchen running and so many people fed: Georgina Dye, the cook who’s been there 12 years; two security guards who keep crowds orderly at mealtimes; Brother David, the dinner greeter with his ever-present hand-counter (and his morning counterpart, Sister Ann Marie—both are also client services coordinators);a handful of major local retailers who donate food (think: Kroger, Busken, Walmart, Trader Joe’s, JTM Meats, and more); a team of suburban churches that collects items for bag lunches; and a core group of volunteers who help assemble and hand out the meals.
At the heart of this well-oiled machine, though, are two people who keep it all running like clockwork: Volunteer Services Director Theresa Diersen and Food Service Director Jay Olzak. Both came to work at the soup kitchen in 2017—she from the corporate world, in search of “something to fill my soul”; he from an administrator’s position at Cincinnati State’s Culinary Arts program, falling into this job that feels more like a vocation. Together, they manage hundreds of monthly volunteer slots and ensure that a thousand or more meals are served each week to clients. But maybe their most impressive feat to date has been successfully managing this place—and keeping it open without interruption—throughout a global pandemic.
To fully appreciate the kinds of challenges Olzak and Diersen faced with COVID, it helps to understand the SFSM program from a pre-pandemic perspective. Roughly 150 people make up OTR’s permanent homeless population, says SFSM Executive Director Chris Schuermann. This soup kitchen serves them (and any other hungry clients who show up) between 300 and 400 meals each day: breakfasts, dinners, and bag lunches alike.
Olzak’s role on paper includes meal-planning with Dye, managing food purchases and donations (he keeps a five-week food supply on hand, just in case), keeping the dining room clean, and making sure the kitchen equipment is in good working order. Diersen, meantime, is in charge of scheduling that legion of volunteers who make the whole program possible—roughly 75 each week, down from 150 pre-pandemic, when they used to need dedicated dishwashers for the china and metal flatware that have now been replaced by disposable products. In non-COVID times, she also schedules volunteers for two other SFSM programs that are currently on hiatus.
The pair meets weekly in-person and talks at least once each day. But the things that have always made their jobs challenging are the constant unknowns that come with a largely volunteer workforce and an unpredictable food supply. There are regular donations, for example—bakery deliveries from Busken and a fresh fruit-and-veggie drop off from one of the volunteers, both weekly—but “we never know exactly what’s going to come in,” says Olzak (case in point: once, JTM donated 20 cases of meatballs—at 25 pounds each). Despite the uncertainty, Olzak supplements with frugal purchases of his own and sticks as close as possible to a regular schedule (tacos or meatballs on Monday, something light on Tuesday, brisket or braised chicken on Wednesday, leftovers on Thursday, and fish on Friday); he also works hard with Dye “to make the food as appetizing and enticing as possible.”
On the other side of the balancing act are the volunteers. Some come from a pool of regulars who work on the same days or weeks throughout the year, but Diersen, who’s inundated with volunteer requests at Christmastime but sometimes scratches for volunteers after that, finds herself supplementing with schoolteachers and families in the summers, high school and nursing school students looking for volunteer hours at other times of year, and even nonviolent, first-time offenders from the Hamilton County Probation Office who are sentenced to community service. She’s also been having a hard time finding breakfast volunteers lately, now that so many downtown workers are telecommuting. But somehow, she says, “We always, by the grace of God, make it work.”
That same grace came in handy at the height of the pandemic last spring when SFSM ended up being the only soup kitchen in Cincinnati’s urban core that never shut down (others closed, Schuermann says, because they had no volunteers or were short-staffed). It wasn’t easy. In March and April, the kitchen ran on a skeleton crew—just Olzak, Diersen, Dye, and a handful of reallocated staffers from other SFSM programs. “We didn’t see anyone else for months,” says Olzak. In fact, he notes, “One day, it was just me and Brother David. Not a single other person showed up.”
A volunteer notes that helping out at SFSM during COVID “saved me,” and “helped provide a little bit of certainty in an uncertain time.”
He and Diersen also had to shut down the entire dining room March 12 and start serving all meals to-go instead, in compliance with state-mandated COVID restrictions. And “because there was literally nothing in all of OTR, and we’re normally closed Saturday and Sunday,” says Diersen, “we made a plethora of bagged lunches and made them more full than they normally would be.” For clients who were experiencing food instability on the weekends as well, the Franciscan Friars started handing out bag lunches on Sundays, too.
Eventually, a core group of about a dozen volunteers—gloved, masked, and socially distant—returned. One volunteer came in every single weekday for months, notes Schuermann. Another made it his personal mission to procure that weekly fresh fruit and veggie donation, collected from multiple Kroger stores. And yet another volunteer notes that helping out at SFSM during COVID “saved me,” and “helped provide a little bit of certainty in an uncertain time.” Bottom line, says Diersen: “We kind of became a family during that period.”
In its own strange way, the pandemic helped some of St. Francis’s former clients find more stable living arrangements, too. “Many found temporary residence outside of OTR,” says Olzak, noting several clients relocated near Sharonville or Evendale, where hotels were initially putting up homeless clients “so they wouldn’t contract or spread COVID.” And a lot of former SFSM clients moved into Tender Mercies’s new 821 Flats apartment building, which opened in January 2020, notes Diersen.
Still, she adds, “The ones on the streets now are the most vulnerable—those who have slipped through the cracks.” Most often that means those with diagnosed mental illness who stopped taking their meds due to the fact that “a lot of case managers are not going out because of COVID,” says Diersen. Unfortunately, she adds, “there’s only so much we can do [for those clients] because our mission is food. But we do keep an eye out for them.” Olzak has gotten blankets for people, and Diersen “pulled strings” to help another client get into a rehab facility. Whenever possible, she adds, “We’ll do more than what our job actually is.”
Sure enough, the day I visited, both Olzak and Schuermann were fretting over a female client who was laying beneath a blanket on the sidewalk while the dinner line formed around her. Having seen her both on and off meds in the past, they felt certain she’d gone off of them again and were concerned for her safety. While volunteers served dinner, Schuermann and Olzak tried diligently to reach her case manager and get her some help.
“I think the reason we are so important is most of our clients don’t have any stability,” says Dierson. “They don’t have consistency in their life. They know we are consistently going to ‘be there.’ Even when our doors are not open, we are a state safe haven.”
Last November, the dining room at that safe haven finally re-opened (albeit in two shifts, both at half capacity) and that soup kitchen continued carrying on. Everyone—clients and volunteers alike—was masked up and socially distant. Dinner was still served in to-go boxes. But clients could once again sit down at tables and chairs to eat in a warm and welcoming environment—a rarity for anyone experiencing homelessness.
And so, still today, the SFSM soup kitchen carries on, pandemic or not. Olzak still offers hungry people comfort in the form of wholesome, hot meals. Diersen still gives volunteers the chance to find meaning and purpose in an otherwise uncertain time. And everyone who spends any amount of time here seems to start seeing the world in a very different way.
“On the street, people walk around them,” says one core volunteer of the soup kitchen’s clientele. “But here, I see clients being treated like human beings.” It’s a simple way of showing, he adds, that “I’m not any better than they are.”