Milestone Reached

Soup Kitchen Celebrates 35 Years OF Service

St. Susan Center has been providing meals for the hungry for 35 years in Jamestown. Formed from tragedy, the center has become a beacon of hope for many in the community. P-J photo by William Mohan

St. Susan Center of Jamestown has reached a major milestone.

To celebrate 35 years, St. Susan Center will host its annual Soup and A Song function at St. James Church, 27 Allen St., Jamestown, on Saturday from 6-9 p.m. Music will be performed by Bill Ward and Friends. There will also be a video presentation by storyteller: Paul Leone. The event has become a staple at St. Susan since it was first held on Jan. 21, 2011. Today, the center now serves between 200 to 400 meals to Jamestown’s hungry daily. The center also served two million meals in 2015 and is fast approaching two and a half million meals served. The center has served 115,000 meals so far this year.

However, the story behind the center’s founding begins more than 38 years earlier. During one of their weekly gatherings, eight regional clergy members got together and decided that a soup kitchen was desperately needed in the community.

The members of this group were Monsignor Antoine Attea and the Rev. Jim Croglio of St. James Roman Catholic Church, Fr. Nick Rafael of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, the Rev. Richard Fenn of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, the Rev. Calvin Steck of Westminster Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Marjorie Coons of the United Church of Christ, the Rev. Gaylord Charles TenEyck of Falconer United Methodist Church, and the Rev. William Tuyn of St. John’s Church.

Unfortunately, funding was not available when the group came to the conclusion. Despite appeals to area churches for donations, there was still not enough funds to establish a soup kitchen.

St. Susan Center is celebrating 35 years of service to the city of Jamestown from left are Brent Gamblin, St. Susan board president: Dorinda Courtine-White, Larry Swanson, Sandy White, Frankie Capizzi, Katie Murdock, Joe Vogt, St. Susan executive director: Bonny Scott-Sleight, Zach Reeves, Kathy Myers, Scott Gapa and Frank Smith. P-J photo by William Mohan

That all began to change in the winter of 1981 with a tragic outcome. Two young women from Long Island came to Western New York to ski in Ellicottville. While in Chautauqua County, they were in a car crash. The victims were Susan Tornabene and her sister. The women were taken to UPMC (then WCA Hospital) and their parents Mike and Anne Tornabene came to Jamestown to oversee their daughters’ recovery.

While they were eventually able to return home, Susan later died from complications related to her injuries.

During their time in Jamestown, Mike and Anne were grateful for the support they received from the clergy and the rest of the community. Following Susan’s death, Mr. Tornabene heard of the need and donated the remaining funds needed to establish a soup kitchen.

“Jamestown is compassionate, understanding, loving and gentle,” he said at the time.

Two regular attendees of St. Susan Center eagerly described what the organization means to them.

“Eating a meal at St. Susan Center helped me save on my grocery bill and pay other bills,” said Pedro Vazquez “I miss more than just a meal if I skip a day at St. Susan Center.”

Vazquez added that he recently had a medical operation to remove his gallbladder and many friends he made at St. Susan Center showed him their support during this time.

“While in the hospital my friends from St. Susan visited me, I received cards, and even one from the St. Susan Center staff. They all have become my family.”

Julie Cramer agreed with Vazquez and elaborated on the value of the friendships made at St. Susan Center.

“The firendships built here keep us connected,” Cramer said. “The volunteers and staff go out of their way to get to know us and make us feel special.”

Upon receiving the funding, Attea allowed St. Susan Center to use the cafeteria of St. James’ former catholic school on Prospect Avenue and the soup kitchen began operation in 1984. At that time, the school only used the facility on weekdays. The only stipulation was that the soup kitchen needed to be out of the building before school lunches were served. Serving hours were from 8:30 a.m to 5 p.m. on weekends and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday.

The first established day for the center was Jan. 1, 1984. The first meals were served a month later. The early years of the center were eventful for volunteer Liz Stocum who also served as a teacher at Falconer Central School. She later earned the title of executive director in July 1986.

“The first day of operation I found that we had people at the door early in the morning before we opened,” Stocum said, referring to the kitchen’s original hours.

Stocum realized how dire the need was when she visited the kitchen during a break in her schedule.

“I came to the soup kitchen and the staff was just overwhelmed by the number of people that were walking in the door and this was all on day one,” she said.

In total, the center provided 35,611 meals to the hungry of Jamestown in its first year. Stocum also saw the number of people grow over the coming years.

“We grew from five a day to 100 and that was very stressful for the staff,” she said. “But it was interesting to watch us stretch our food over the years.”

Stocum remembers one particular incident that for her demonstrated the need for the soup kitchen in Jamestown.

“I saw one family come in that had three little girls with sandals in 6 feet of snow in the heart of winter,” she said.

However, Stocum says the biggest obstacle St. Susan Center faced in its early years was stereotyping.

“We (as a society) didn’t regard mental health as the crisis it is now, so many (in the community) assumed the soup kitchen was only for the homeless,” Stocum said. “We also had a lot of people say we wouldn’t last a year.”

Stocum is proud that despite the constant labeling, the center received support from two partners.

“St. Luke’s and the Salvation Army were very supportive of our efforts,” she said.

Today, the center has maintained those partnerships and receives clothing and other items from them on an as needed basis. During this time, the client base for the center also expanded quickly.

“We originally had clients that were just within walking distance,” Stocum explained. “With various economic downturns in Jamestown over the years we saw clients from the workforce coming in.”

Stocum left St. Susan in October 2002. However, she looks back fondly on her years and the impact the kitchen has left on the community.

“What I will remember most is the way the community rallied behind us,” she said.

On July 14, 2006, St. Susan Center moved to its current location of the Gateway Center on Water Street after it was learned St. James couldn’t feasibly operate and maintain the school building any longer. Today, Walgreens Pharmacy sits on the former site of St. James School.

The early 2010s saw the beginning of the Soup and a Song event.

“It originally began as an open mic night and has grown every year since,” said Bonny Scott-Sleight, St. Susan Center executive director.

While much of St. Suan has changed from community support, locations, and fundraising; the mission according to Scott-Sleight has always been consistent.

“Our mission remains the same, to offer meals and fellowship, dignity and integrity to all who walk through our doors,” she said.

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