HAMLET — Offers to upgrade the Richmond County soup kitchen have poured in since late last year, when the Seaboard Festival Board contributed a $5,000 check to help upgrade the inadequate appliances and preparation area.
As an eventual result, the sponsoring Richmond County Mental Health Society will hold an open house Sunday afternoon at the facility situated off a Hamlet alley, to show off its new dining room paint job (soft yellow), tables and chairs (clean and not wobbly), pantry (stocked with canned food) and kitchen spacious enough to serve 60 or so diners each weekday.
“That was the start,” society board chair Carol Venable said Wednesday of the Seaboard grant.
After news of that spread, people started calling, asking, “Do you still need a stove?” All the soup kitchen had was a four-burner number that would do the job in a home kitchen — but not for the service of five dozen lunch eaters.
Now, the kitchen boasts two commercial two-door refrigerators, a commercial stove, an array of hand-crafted oak cabinetry and enough room to set up a serving line and a prep station. In the old kitchen, two people could barely stand side by side to serve. And if someone had to wash dishes at the sink behind them? Forget it.
A little tussle has begun to see who will serve from the kitchen first, since it is ready for use with a bit of cleanup. But Venable says that honor should go to Ernie Eason, a board member who built and installed the cabinetry, and is scheduled to serve hot meals on Monday.
“He has been down here countless hours,” Venable said. Sometimes, one of the lunch clients helped him.
About the clients … How do they like the new digs, which already are in use — except for the kitchen?
“They’ve been very impressed,” she said — especially with the loss of “old tables that were truly raggedly and … would shift” when people used them.
“Now it’s nice to have a nice, sturdy, clean table that matches (the new chairs).”
Venable doesn’t know how much the improvements cost. Most donors just sent their gifts to the site, ready to install.
Contractors worked for discounted fees.
Churches invited her to speak, then passed the collection plate.
And volunteers worked long hours that cannot be counted. On Wednesday, a young woman planted petunias to dress up the outside, and Hamlet’s city manager promised a crew to help with other plantings.
“The community (worked) together to get this done,” Venable said as her brother, Vann McDuffie, used a T-square to measure where he should rehang pictures in the dining room.
“I’d be afraid to even say (how much it all cost) because we’re talking commercial appliances,” she said. When all is said and done, “our finances just came through to do it.”
The soup kitchen sits at the rear of a blank space next to The Grab, a secondhand store that finances the National Railroad Museum. A head-high white fence surrounds the entrance. A black-and-white sign announces the kitchen’s presence.
From noon to 1 p.m. each weekday, the homeless, elderly or down on their luck drop in to eat. Usually, the total is around 60, though that number swells by dozens during the summer, when children are home from school.
Some diners exhibit signs of mental illness; others appear to be what Venable euphemistically calls “self-medicated.”
The Mental Health Society won its charter in 1972, during the “community-based mental health” craze, which allowed it to mount several projects. But through the years, the society has found less and less help for the mentally ill, Venable said in November — and “now it’s come down to (the fact) this is the (only) program we are able to provide.”
Area churches rotate cooking and serving, as do community organizations.
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]