Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Soup kitchen cooks up a fundraiser for cash

Story courtesy of the Charlotte Observer

They're feeding more hungry people than ever in Mooresville, but costs are rising and donations are off.

Melinda Story was born and raised in Mooresville but never knew the town of 27,000 had a charity soup kitchen - or even needed one.

Then she lost her job.

"I'd been struggling for about three weeks when a friend said I should go to the local soup kitchen," Story, 47, recalls. "I remember thinking: 'A soup kitchen? Where?'"

Ten years later, Story is among the nearly 400 volunteers who work at the Mooresville Soup Kitchen, which served 40,000 meals last year.

That's a 7,000-meal jump over the pre-recession years, explaining why the 24-year-old nonprofit is selling tickets for its first-ever big fundraiser.

The plan is to host a community LobsterFest on June 3, with proceeds going to pay increased operational costs.

"When I first started coming, I didn't recognize anyone among the people getting help," says Story. "Now, I know a lot, including people I went to school with and people I went to church with. We all had jobs, and they've gone away."

Soup kitchen director Jody Schwandt says a lot of people don't imagine Mooresville has a poverty problem.

"Everybody thinks of this as Racing City USA, Lowe's corporate and Lake Norman," she says. "But they forget all the textile mills that were here. When those mills closed, those people were left without compensation."

Clients at the agency range from mothers with small children to people in their 90s, she says.

The soup kitchen makes it a policy not to make visitors prove they're local or even that they're poor.

"Our only requirement is that you walk through the door, and for 24 years, it has worked," Schwandt says.

"Some say we should continue that way. Others say we should screen people. I say we help neighbors - the people sitting next to you in church or in line with you at the bank."

As with Story, Schwandt has been a client, too. In her case, it happened when her husband was out of work due to cancer treatment, and the house payment and two auto notes became overwhelming.

"I'm a perfect example of someone who needed to be here, but we wouldn't have qualified for food stamps."

Lisa Qualls is the soup kitchen's fundraising chair, and she hopes to sell 400 tickets to the LobsterFest, raising $10,000.

Operating costs for the agency have risen about 10 percent the past two years, she says, putting the current budget at $160,000. Part of that increase is due to the fact that the soup kitchen expanded three years ago, moving off the property of First Baptist Church of Mooresville.

Most of the agency's money comes from churches, but that hasn't stopped donations from declining about 10 percent during the recession, she says.

"We don't want to wait until we're in a money crisis," Qualls says.

"There's a sense of ownership among the people who come here. And we're all looking for a way to make sure it stays around a long time."

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