OLEAN, N.Y. — Thanks to a grant from the Holy Name Province Benevolence Fund, St. Bonaventure University’s Warming House was able to continue service to the community during the summer months.
This $10,000 grant from the Franciscan friars encourages and supports programs and projects that offer concrete services for meting the needs of the poor. The competitive grant provides stipends for four summer interns who plan, cook and serve about 60 meals five days a week. During the academic year, the Warming House relies daily on two student coordinators and five additional volunteers.
“We truly don’t know how we would stay open if it wasn’t for this grant,” said Larry Sorokes, director of the Center for Community Engagement at the Western New York school. “This gives us a stable leadership force so we can stay functioning at the level we do during the academic year. And for these students, it gives them an opportunity to explore what it is to be educated in a Franciscan way.”
During the last school year, dozens of meals had already been served at The Warming House’s new North Union Street location when a neighboring business owner approached Sorokes and asked: “So, when are you going to open?”
After months of public meetings and community discussions about the Warming House’s relocation into the city of Olean’s business district, the service/outreach ministry has settled nicely into its new home and a new routine.
In addition to a larger kitchen, preparation space and dining room, the North Union Street building has a classroom, a room for staff and a large basement storage area. Donations of new tables and chairs for the dining area and some new appliances for the kitchen were welcomed by the guests and staff alike.
The aesthetics aren’t lost on the guests, who are appreciative of the move to a newly renovated building. But the changes aren’t just cosmetic. The larger space has opened up new opportunities, such as a daily class, which the guests are invited to attend prior to dinner.
Caryl and Gail Winship of Olean are grateful for a warm meal and the followship they find at the Warming House, which they’ve been coming to for 27 years. They like the central location and comfort of the North Union Street site.
“The guests have responded well to this. They are getting more involved,” said Nick Goodell, program manager for the Center for Community Engagement.
In the dining room at the Warming House, the day’s messages — including the house rules, menu and schedule — flash across a flat-screen TV. At a nearby round table, a handful of guests prepare for the day’s program.
Seated nearby, another longtime guest, Chuck Black, recalled visiting the Warming House at one of its earlier locations on North Union Street Extension, when guests were invited inside for coffee, donuts and prayer.
Regardless of the Warming House’s address, and whether dinner is meat loaf or a casserole, “the students have a genuine care for us,” Black said.
“They’re like family,” he added. “If you have a need, you can go talk to them. It’s not a ‘soup kitchen.’ It truly is community engagement. When you step in here, everyone is treated equal.”
The Breakfast Club Meets The Warming House
St. Bonaventure student Patrick Alfonso was thrilled to be one of the four interns working at the Warming House this summer.
“This is an exciting time to be a part of the Warming House, and I want to set a good example and precedent,” Alfonso said.
Alfonso, a philosophy and business double major from Tampa, Fla., was joined on the summer staff by Lauren Morris, an international studies major with minors in French and political science; Mike Gargano, who is working on his master’s in counseling at St. Bonaventure; and Aja Wzientek, a physical education major.
The students use their range of academic focus and varied backgrounds in service to complement each other’s skills — and to share their expertise with the guests.
One day, Alfonso leads a “Skills to Pay the Bills” workshop. During another, Gargano guides a small gathering in meditation and journal writing while his fellow students finish preparations for the day’s meal of spaghetti and marinara sauce.
Gargano (pictured with F. Edward Coughlin, OFM), a 2011 theology graduate from Fort Edward, N.Y., sees his work at the Warming House as “an education in the human condition.” He explains, “The guests teach you other skills, such as how to deal with other personalities, how to be a manager, how to be a good listener.”
Wzientek is a senior and will soon be student teaching, where she knows she’ll meet families of many socioeconomic situations.
The Fillmore native has put to use some of the skills she developed growing up in a family of nine. “Sometimes it’s better to just listen,” she said with a smile.
“This is one place they can come and not be judged. They can be comfortable and have control in their lives,” she said.
Morris, a senior from Nunda, has done a lot of service work but just hadn’t made it to the Warming House yet. She has been an active volunteer during her time at Bona’s starting with her freshman year volunteering with Embrace it Africa.
“No matter what you do, you’re going to be surprised. Wherever you go, people are going to need your help — and they’ll help you,” Morris said.
“All service work is different. The more you do service, the more you’re going to learn,” whether it’s preparing lasagna for 35 at the Warming House or assisting young students at a rural Ugandan school.
Or perhaps even picking beetles off of vegetables that are nearing harvest.
The Center for Community Engagement has integrated weekly service at nearby Canticle Farm because of a mutual belief in the Franciscan tenet of respect for the earth and creation.
“By working directly with the farmers and volunteers at Canticle, our interns gain insights into the importance of organic, sustainable agriculture, as well as a greater appreciation for the foods we serve our guests,” said Sorokes.
In exchange for the interns’ work, the Warming House receives several weekly shares of fresh produce from the Community Supported Agriculture farm throughout its growing season, resulting in more nutritious and diverse offerings at mealtime.
— Beth Eberth is director of university communications at St. Bonaventure in Allegany, N.Y.