Don Reny is everything Alice Lachance said he would be: smart, entertaining, generous and funny.

Very funny. Unlike a lot of people, he remembers jokes well and recites them one right after another.

But he also can be sensitive and serious, such as when he talks about his many years doing volunteer work in Florida, cooking for terminally ill children and their families as part of Give Kids the World, a program of the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Those families stayed at a special vacation village with all expenses paid. They visited Disney World and did lots of other fun things. Reny loved feeding the children.

“I cooked 15 years for them,” Reny said. “Some would come in with no hair; some were in wheelchairs. They were from all over the world.”

Reny, 76, tells me this story on a recent Saturday as we sit in the Notre Dame Catholic Church hall on Silver Street in Waterville, where he volunteers as a cook for the soup kitchen.

He gets emotional momentarily when he remembers those sick children, who have since passed away.

But he also remembers with joy the smiles on their faces as he kidded with them and told them tales.

“This is my thing,” he said. “Any day that I go to bed without making somebody laugh that day, I’ve wasted a day in my life.”

Reny is a slim man with salt-and-pepper hair, blue eyes, a trim mustache and wide grin.

His upbeat attitude is contagious.

All the women and a young man who volunteer in the soup kitchen this Saturday are laughing and sharing stories as they wait for the diners to arrive.

“Don laughs and sings the whole time he is cooking, and I think that is why his food is so good,” says Lachance, who insisted I come to visit the soup kitchen and meet Reny. “He has very little outside donations to work with and never complains.”

Lachance says Reny runs the kitchen on a shoestring and a prayer, which is another reason she contacted me earlier in the week.

She wanted to let people know that the Daughters of Isabella Circle 447 and Knights of Columbus Council 13486 will host a special supper to benefit the soup kitchen 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. April 6, in the church hall. Spaghetti, beans, franks and all the trimmings will be served for a donation of $6 for adults and $3 for children under 12. Tickets are available at the church hall.

She also said people may donate to the soup kitchen by sending contributions to Corpus Christi Parish, care of Notre Dame Soup Kitchen, 70 Pleasant St., Waterville, ME 04901.

As Lachance chats with volunteers, Reny shows me a steaming cabbage casserole he has just taken out of the oven. He opens another oven to check on a huge pan of roasted red potatoes. The aroma of garlic fills the kitchen.

Reny never gets tired of cooking, even though he does it six days a week. He is a volunteer cook at Senior Spectrum’s Muskie Center and at the soup kitchen at Second Baptist Church in Oakland as well.

“Sunday’s my day off,” he said, grinning.

I wonder aloud what drives him to give so much of his time to help those less fortunate.

The third-oldest of eight children, Reny grew up in North Vassalboro, where he remembers his mother and father being very good to others.

“It didn’t matter who stopped in. There was always another place setting for them at the table. My parents were very generous.”

His mother and sisters were great cooks, which might be one reason he has the culinary knack. He also learned a lot from chefs who came from all over the world to cook at Give Kids the World program.

Lachance claims the meals he makes rival those in fine restaurants. Reny says he doesn’t like to toot his own horn, but his fare is pretty darned good.

“This is not strictly a soup kitchen, because very seldom do we serve soup,” he said. “Last week I made sweet-and-sour pork. I do baked chicken, sloppy Joes, beef stews, turkey meals with all the fixings.”

Before retiring and becoming a volunteer cook in Florida during the winters, Reny owned and operated Reny Woodworking Inc. in Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lorraine, have three children — Steve, who now runs the Yarmouth business, Peggy and Kelly.

Family is important to Reny. He serves dozens of adults with children at the soup kitchen, and over time, he gets to know them by name. Then the children grow up and move on and he misses them.

“Some kids come in and I’ve seen them for the last six years, and if I don’t see them, I want to know why,” he said.

 Serving these people who are poor, down on their luck or just plain lonely is very much a way of life for Reny. He can’t imagine doing anything else.

“That’s the problem — I do like it. I wish I’d started a long time ago, but I couldn’t. I had to make a living.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 25 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]

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