Our Community Kitchen Opens to Strong Demand

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — It wasn’t long after Our Community Kitchen opened its doors July 18 that the dining area was packed, underscoring the growing need in the city to help the impoverished, the hungry and those who struggle day-to-day.

“It’s been building ever since,” says Ralph “Skip” Barone, kitchen manager, who is busy preparing food for the 11 o’clock crowd on a hot July morning. “We’re expecting a couple of hundred for lunch today.”

Our Community Kitchen, Youngstown, is much more than a soup kitchen, Barone says. It’s a vehicle that seeks not only to feed those most in need, but also to lend a hand to people trying to reconnect with their families or to help rebuild their lives with dignity.

“They appreciate the new space, the amenities we offer,” Barone says of the clientele. “We’re going Monday through Saturday – and Saturday is a busy day.”

Our Community Kitchen serves breakfast from 7 to 9 a.m. and lunch from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. During its first week, the kitchen averaged about 50 patrons for breakfast and between 150 and 200 during the afternoon, Barone reports.

The new dining hall, 551 Mahoning Ave., is a departure from other traditional kitchens across the Mahoning Valley, Barone notes. The tables and chairs are set up café style, providing a more inviting ambiance. There are three computer terminals that guests of the kitchen can use to keep in touch with members of their families and improve their education and skills.

“We’re also going to have a couple of people here who are experienced with the Ohio Benefits Bank,” Barone adds. “This could help our patrons get Social Security, renew their drivers’ licenses or apply for disability benefits.”

Construction of the building and its operations was funded entirely by the Anthony Cocca Family Foundation. Initially, the project had partnered with the Second Harvest Food Bank, but differences led to Cocca assuming control of the whole project. “We’re applying for some grants and are trying to get on board with another one of the food banks to help supply us,” Barone says. “We’ll see what happens.”

Businesses such as Mr. Anthony’s, Schwebel’s and GFS donated food during the first week, and the kitchen is looking for other donations, especially pastries and other baked goods.

Meanwhile, the organization has welcomed new and veteran volunteers to help staff the dining room and its kitchen. “Right now, I’ve got a list of volunteers,” Barone says. “There are people coming in every day that want to help.”

Antonia Douglass has worked with Barone for years, dating to when Barone was kitchen manager at the St. Vincent de Paul Society dining hall on Front Street in Youngstown. Barone left that position after a dispute with St. Vincent de Paul’s former president, Brian Antal.

“We’ve been working with Skip for several years, and we feel blessed to come work here,” Douglass says. “We give our time to St. Vincent de Paul as well.”

Douglass volunteers whenever Barone needs her, she says. “We were here at six in the morning,” she says. Six volunteers usually staff the kitchen at lunch while another six to eight serve the patrons. The food pantry also allows guest to take out meals should they become hungry later in the day.

“We’re here whenever he needs us,” says Barbara Mulholland, another longtime volunteer. In October, the kitchen plans to start an after school lunch program open to children who attend Youngstown City Schools, and she plans to work those hours as well.

“It’s just great to help people. It’s very fulfilling,” Mulholland says.

Barone, who as manager is the sole paid worker at the kitchen, says he’s been engaged in community kitchens for a long time, including 15 years with St. Vincent de Paul. “It started as something to do with my time one day a week,” he recalls. “Pretty soon, I was doing two, then I did four, and then it was every day.”

There are no plans to expand the kitchen’s operations to offer a dinner hour or Sundays, Barone says. “We’re limited to what the bus schedule is,” he says. “There are no buses running on Sundays.”

However, Barone notes, other organizations such as St. John’s Episcopal Church across from Youngstown State University, serve meals every Sunday at lunchtime. And, the Dorothy Day House on Belmont Avenue provides a dinner meal four days per week.

Douglass emphasizes that the patrons who visit Our Community Kitchen each day are thankful and gracious to all of the volunteers, and those gestures alone are reward enough. “We’ve been so blessed with our families, how could we not want to come here and help?” she says. “Skip is a wonderful, compassionate person and he’s taught us to be that way.”

Pictured: Ralph “Skip” Barone, manager, and volunteers Barbaara Mulholland and Antonia Douglass.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.