Living the Mission

Niagara University Students Launch Soup Kitchen in Downtown Niagara Falls

St. George’s Church is bustling on this Thursday evening in May. Those congregated come from all walks of life — young and old, white and black, Catholic and otherwise. Their appearances have been hardened by life’s sometimes unfortunate circumstances.

As four college students approach the head of the room, a hush falls over the assemblage. First, a prayer. Then, the moment of truth: “Tonight, we will be serving grilled cheese sandwiches, cabbage and broccoli soup, as well as beef and vegetable stew,” recites Kalani Personius, ’12.

It’s going to be a good night. It is any time meat is on the menu, Kalani says.

Truth is, Thursday nights have been pretty good here for months, ever since Kalani and rising NU seniors Mary Gibson and Jessica Spellane started a soup kitchen at this longtime pillar of the Falls’ east side. Their effort, along with that of the 20 or so Niagara students who have joined them, has brought much-needed nourishment and camaraderie to hundreds of disadvantaged community members on a weekly basis.

“I cannot tell you how desperate some parts of the city are for people to step up to the plate like these students have,” says Joanne Lorenzo, who oversees programming at St. George’s. “And not only have they come in with a willingness to feed the hungry, the students actually seem eager to listen to these folks, who may not have another person in the world to talk to.”

The idea for the soup kitchen arose last fall when Joanne, looking to fill the church’s only night without a community outreach program, reached out to Monica Saltarelli, ’86, a campus minister at NU. She was aware of the university’s service-learning mission and wondered if Niagara might be interested in partnering. It was.

In need of a student leader for the project, Monica recruited Kalani, a member of NU’s St. Vincent de Paul Society and the 2011 recipient of the Niagara University Student Government Association’s Compassion Award. Kalani jumped at the opportunity, signing up to organize volunteers, monitor budgets, plan menus and shop for food.

Eventually, Kalani began mentoring other students, namely Jessica, Mary and, later, Christa Mastro, ’13, so as to enhance the initiative’s sustainability.

The quartet decided that they wanted to do more than feed the hungry. Establishing personal connections became a primary goal. Kalani informed potential student volunteers that if they were going to participate, they had to invest themselves for the whole semester.

“I wanted the teams to be consistent on a weekly basis so that we weren’t just servers for the people that came to eat,” she explains. “I wanted them to get to know us, to have conversations with us and for it to be more of a community experience.”

Jessica adds, “The most rewarding part for me was talking with all the people that came in for a meal. I loved sitting down and having a conversation with them. One man came up to me and said, 'Jessica, you’re a good person,' which meant the world to me. All the people that come in for a meal are so thankful, and I really love this volunteer experience.”

The soup kitchen opened at St. George’s in November, giving the student leaders time to iron out the wrinkles before Christmas break. While the university recessed for the holidays, Kalani emailed everyone who had expressed an interest in participating.

She heard back from only four people. So Kalani did what any enterprising college student does when they find themselves in a bind: She called her friends.

Word spread quickly. Within weeks, Kalani received an email from Chase Brooks, head coach of the men’s soccer team, saying that he wanted his players to get involved.

Although desperate, Kalani reiterated that the soccer players would be held to the same expectations as the other volunteers.

“They needed to prove to me that they weren’t doing it for the kudos or volunteer hours, but for the outreach experience,” she says. “I wanted to make sure that people were doing it for the right reasons and not because it would make them look good.”

The soccer team more than fulfilled its obligation, drawing additional volunteers in the process. Momentum gained. Students began taking part because their friends were involved or because they needed Learn and Serve hours. They stayed because they were making a difference.

Soon, there was a regular rotation of three five-student teams. A steady stream of 35-40 patrons frequented St. George’s every Thursday night, drawn by an outdoor sandwich board sign and the aroma of Dr. Amelia Gallagher’s homemade soup.

The group supplemented donations from the St.Vincent de Paul Society by selling concessions at home basketball games. Desserts were donated by Panera Bread, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Tops.

On May 12, Kalani graduated from Niagara University with a degree in French education, but not before receiving the department of religious studies’ Blessed Frederic Ozanam Award, the Father James O’Keefe Medal for excellence in the study of French, and a Woman of Distinction Award from the Niagara Gazette. This fall, she’ll be teaching English as a second language to elementary school students in Angers, France.

But that doesn’t mean the soup kitchen will stop serving while Kalani is overseas.

“I couldn’t imagine not being involved after the experiences I have had thus far,” says Christa, a gerontology major. “I am excited to come back and start things up again. I hope to see the project expand and grow to adapt to the needs of the community. Hopefully, we will be able to increase our involvement and interest in the project.”