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Occupational Therapy Student Puts a Sophisticated Twist on the Traditional Soup Kitchen
With a confident smile and a sweet greeting, Jessica Stull MOT’18 meets the diners lining up at the door. They walk in from a cold February night and are introduced by Stull to the hostess who will guide them to their table to be seated for dinner.
Stull, who is a full-time occupational therapy student at USciences, isn’t working at a restaurant to make some extra money. She is seating the homeless and hungry at Hope Café, a restaurant-style soup kitchen which operates as a sort of Saturday night oasis in the heart of Chester, Pa. In this once bustling manufacturing hub 14 miles south of USciences campus, more than a third of the population live below the poverty line. This month Stull invited a group of more than 40 of her USciences classmates to join her as volunteer servers, cooks, dishwashers, and hostesses for the night.
“We really try to defy any expectations that you might have of a soup kitchen,” said Stull, who draws on her previous experience working as a server to direct volunteers who have given their time on Saturday nights to keep Hope Café running smoothly.
Setting tables with black tablecloths, wrapping silverware in cloth napkins, and setting out glasses and centerpieces, the volunteers transform the folding tables that dot the cafeteria at CityTeam. The room takes on the feel of a dining room.
Carly McCance MOT’19, who volunteered as a server, and said she was touched to see a mix of people from single men to families with small children sit down at her tables.
“I didn’t know what I was going into when I signed up to volunteer but to see them come in from the cold for an hour or so and have a nice meal, it was a really rewarding experience,” said McCance.
Instead of lining up with trays at the counter, the guests are treated to a three-course meal. The first course, a warm bowl of creamed acorn squash soup topped with roasted pumpkin seeds, is served tableside. For the main course, they are brought their choice of either chicken bruschetta or an herb-dusted fish cake stacked atop a serving of potato puree and roasted Brussel sprouts drizzled of balsamic reduction. The meal is finished with a dessert cart and gourmet coffee.
“It is really about giving the guests and the people in our community value,” said John Clifford, food service manager at CityTeam, which operates Hope Café. “For a lot of people in our community some of them are living under the bridge, some of them are living in abandoned houses, some of them don’t have any money whatsoever and this is the last place they can go. There is no one else saying, ‘let’s give this person something amazing and a dining experience.’ That is what we do because anything that dignifies people really gives them a hand up. You really see a transformation in people.”
Jennifer White MOT’19 said she saw each guest walk out happier than they were when they arrived.
“It was a visible difference in how they carried themselves,” said White whose future career will be informed by experiences like this one at Hope Café, as she will be working with different people from many different communities as an occupational therapist.
“It is important to get out there and work with all people from all backgrounds, all education levels, and all income levels,” said White. “We are learning soft skills like how to build rapport and treat people with respect – those are things you can’t learn from a book.”
The restaurant is operated by CityTeam Chester, a nonprofit organization that provides resources to those in need and operates a drug treatment facility in its headquarters a block from the railroad tracks. Although Chester was once the home of the manufacturing and industry that made Delaware County prosperous, those plants have left, shuttering warehouses and leaving many without jobs and making way for crime and drugs that have crippled many in the community.
“A lot of these people, the guests at Hope Café and the guys who work in the kitchen who are also residents in the drug rehab run by CityTeam, are in the worst part of their lives. They are struggling, but we show then that someone from outside what they know actually cares about them and is there volunteering and dedicating their time to them,” said Stull. “That means a lot.”
Stull, a Delaware County native who gives her time as volunteer coordinator for Hope Café, has been working with CityTeam for nine years and helped to start up the cafe with the hopes of treating each guest with the dignity and respect of a night out for dinner, even in a soup kitchen. Although she has never taken a salary for the position, Stull works all week and is there nearly every Saturday night to ensure that the program runs smoothly for the volunteers and guests.
“Jessica’s incredible dedication to Hope Café is truly amazing,” said Colleen Maher, PhD, program director of the USciences’ master of occupational therapy program. “She is so humble, organized, creative and compassionate, making her the perfect coordinator for this program. What’s even more amazing is that Jessica attends our very intense program full time, is active in our student OT organization as the fundraising chair and is a member of the honor society. Jessica has been as asset to the program and she will be an asset to our profession.”
Stull said she was so grateful to share the experience she has each week at Hope Café with her USciences classmates and hopes that the relationship between the two organizations will continue as she marches toward graduation and beyond.
For more information about CityTeam Chester and Hope Cafe, visit https://www.cityteam.org/philadelphia/.
Categories: News, Students, Community, Samson College, Department of Occupational Therapy, Occupational Therapy