WATERVILLE — The Sacred Heart Soup Kitchen may have to shut its doors in the coming weeks because of a lack of consistent funding.
“Nobody feels any worse than I do,” said kitchen director Dick Willette. “This has been my baby for 32 years. I think I’m the last charter member left.”
Willette spoke Monday as a few dozen patrons trailed into the kitchen in the basement of Sacred Heart Catholic Church on Pleasant Street, and sat in a row of folding chairs, waiting for an 11:30 a.m. lunch of macaroni and cheese and hot dogs. Willette said a short prayer and volunteers dished up meals.
Willette said that he had planned to close the kitchen for good Sept. 1 but a recent and desperate plea for donations has generated enough money to at least pay the trash removal and phone bills.
What happens in the next week will determine if the kitchen remains open on a month-to-month basis as donations allow or closes as planned on Sept. 1.
The cash crunch has been coming for a while, according to Willette.
“We’re caught in the recession,” he said. “My budget was $25,000 for 2011. I spent $28,000 and I took in $22,000 in donations. I put in $3,800 of my own money, but I can’t put any more in.”
Open Monday through Friday, the soup kitchen has 42 volunteers who cooked and served 47,697 free meals to patrons in 2011, Willette said.
Willette, 79, was a founding member of the kitchen, which opened Sept. 14, 1980.
“I tried to make it to the 14th of September to close, but the recession got us,” he said.
Ten years ago, the kitchen had $18,000 in its checking account and organizers didn’t have to worry about a thing, he said.
But companies that donated items such as coffee, sliced beef, hamburger and regular money have stopped doing so as businesses changed hands and developed their own financial worries.
“Older folks who were retired gave us checks for $5 to $25 out of their pension and Social Security checks,” he said. “They’d send it in every month. Some of those people have passed away or are watching their own pocketbooks. They’re having a hard time meeting their own budgets.”
The soup kitchen gets donations of leftover food from supermarkets, doughnut and coffee shops and other places, but it must buy its own sugar, butter, milk, cooking oil, coffee and other items.
The kitchen operates independently of the Corpus Christi Parish, but Willette last week approached the parish’s pastor, the Rev. Joseph Daniels, to tell him the kitchen will be closing.
The kitchen had two trash bills, totaling $100, as well as a $45 telephone bill. Willette said he swore he’d never close the kitchen owing any money, so he asked Daniels for help.
“I didn’t want to do it,” he said, his eyes welling up with tears.
Daniels put the word out in the parish bulletin that the kitchen needed money. Willette said he received a total of $406 from 17 of 4,000 families in the parish.
In addition to that help, Joseph’s Market owner Kevin Joseph added $500 to the $700 credit the kitchen has at his Front Street store. A kitchen committee member who typically gives $500 a year from his tax return decided to donate it now, and the American Legion pitched in $100, Willette said. Taconnet Federal Credit Union also is planning to donate some money, according to Willette.
Meanwhile, Daniels is asking parish churches Saturday and Sunday to hold another collection for the kitchen, Willette said.
While the donations will help in the short term, Willette says what is needed to keep the kitchen operating long-term is pledges from people to give smaller donations on a monthly or basis as donors used to do.
“Some people are homeless, some are just down and out, some are transients going through and they’re told to come here for a hearty meal, some just play the game, but we don’t care,” he said. “Most of them are going to hurt without this kitchen because this is their only meal for the day.”
Bradford Russell, 71, of Waterville, said that for a whole year, he ate only one meal a day, and it was from the soup kitchen. Now sometimes people give him food here and there, but without the kitchen, he would go hungry, he said.
“I depended on that meal and I still do,” he said.
Longtime volunteers Pat Stewart and John Pople said 75 to 120 people eat daily at the kitchen and closing it would have an impact not only on older people, but also 19- and 20-year-olds who eat there.
Pople, who serves on the Board of Trustees for Taconnet, said donations are “are very critical” to the kitchen’s existence.