By Jennifer L. Warren
POUGHKEEPSIE – It all started with one hungry person, a few eggs, a can of corned beef hash and three selfless, loving souls.
The year was 1983, and the place was Beulah Baptist Church, located in the City of Poughkeepsie. A group of women were engrossed in the details of a social action meeting when the Pastor, Dr. Jesse Voyd Bottoms, Jr., was forced to interrupt.
“The Reverend told us a man came into the church and said he was hungry, so he asked us if we could find him some food,” recalled Deaconess Doris Brown about the pivotal moment. “Catharine Robinson and I went to the kitchen, and saw there were three eggs in the refrigerator and a can of corned beef hash on the shelf of the cabinet, so we cooked him up a meal with some bread, and I’ll never forget his saying it was the best meal he had had in months.”
Once the man thanked the women for the nourishment, the Pastor returned, asking if a Saturday food program could be initiated. On the second Saturday of March, 1983, the very first “Beulah Lunch Meal,” consisting of tuna fish sandwiches and KoolAid, took place. Fifteen, very happy and grateful people were in attendance. Word spread of a second “Lunch Meal” event the following Saturday that produced 27 attendees. By week three, 60 people showed up, and by the fourth week even more people were on hand, when a thick stew-like soup, chock full of meat and pasta, appeared on the menu, the luncheon had evolved into a Soup Kitchen, wielding 100 people. In fact, several times, over its 38 year existence, that number has exceeded 200.
Aside from the critical need for the Soup Kitchen, another dominant factor in its impressive popularity has been one of the driving forces behind it, Deaconess Brown. From the moment she served that hungry man back in 1983, she has been deeply invested in the Soup Kitchen’s weekly operations on multiple levels. Back in January of this year, after 38 years of faithful service to this food heartbeat of the City of Poughkeepsie, Brown retired, replaced by Deaconess Marilyn Ashe. However, her indelible footprint, defined by heartfelt sincerity, dedication and love to all those who enter the Soup Kitchen, remains.
A native of Woodland, North Carolina, Brown moved to Poughkeepsie in 1958. After getting married and having three children, she relocated to Pennsylvania, only to return to the place, the City of Poughkeepsie, that holds a special place in her heart, in 1970. Working in the printing business, as a therapy aide in a psychiatric center, as well as a receptionist and broker for an insurance company, Brown never swayed from her Soup Kitchen duties. For the first seven years of its existence, she had the help of her daughters and a few volunteers; however, since then a long list of committed volunteers, ranging from 6-85 years old were by her side, helping in all ways possible. They are just one of the many reasons her lengthy tenure at the Soup Kitchen has been so priceless, unforgettable.
“There are so many memories, amazing things that have happened there; people have found long lost relatives while having lunch, and one of our volunteers got a job with social services in Albany because of the confidence she acquired from helping out and interacting with the clients,” recalled Brown. “Perhaps most incredible is that in all of the 38 years, we only closed one time, and that was because of a snowstorm that was waist high.”
In fact, even the Pandemic couldn’t stop the soup kitchen from its integral mission. While many other area feeding places had to postpone or completely end their services, the soup kitchen at Beulah Baptist Church, now located at 92 Catherine Street, remained active; in fact, even with a spike in clients, while providing regular, carry out and nutritional meals along with water, juice and groceries.
“My volunteers were all very faithful and were great about wearing masks throughout the Pandemic,” said Brown, “And to my knowledge, no one got sick.”
It’s the mention of those volunteers that brings a huge smile to Brown’s face. She is quick to cite the ones who showed up for needed community service hours and ended up logging added time of their free will simply from the sheer joy the experience brought them. She also lights up as she relates tales of high school students whose parents could not stop raving about how much their children looked forward to and cherished their Saturday soup kitchen hours.
It’s those people, as well as the countless stores, such as; Price Chopper, Shop Rite, Hannafords, Panera Bread, Tops and the NENY Regional Food Bank, that assisted with food donations, and so much more, that made Brown’s close to four decades as a Servant Leader at the Soup Kitchen so easy, enjoyable and treasured.
“We served our seated clients, coming to them with the food, so they could just sit down and relax, and they loved it,” said Brown. “We also have had health fairs, been involved with the Crop Walk for Hunger, and have no differentiation in race or creed, all were welcome.”
As Brown reflects on her Soup Kitchen experience-service, she is flooded by a tidal wave of sheer appreciation for memories that will forever live on in her heart and soul.
“I am most grateful that we are able to give hot food meals and groceries to those in need to tide them over until they go to Lunch Box Partnerships,” said a touched Brown. “We need to have these types of things continue; at any time, any of us, can get into a position where we need them.”