Retiree Cooks Up Volunteer Career At Illinois Mission

Ron Rasberry check on the ham and beans he’s been cooking for the soup kitchen lunch at the South Side Mission, on Oct. 6, 2021, in Peoria, Ill. (Matt Dayhoff/Journal Star via AP)

PEORIA, Ill. (AP) — Bored with retirement, Ron Rasberry got off the couch and headed to the kitchen.

Not his, but the South Side Mission’s.

“I just wanted to stop being lazy,” Rasberry, 71, says with a chuckle. “That couch was killing me.”

Hoping to improve his kitchen skills, he attended the South Side Mission’s Culinary Arts Training School. Usually, the school helps younger people learn a vocation that leads to a job. But when Rasberry finished with classes, he stuck around at the mission, where he now volunteers five days a week in the soup kitchen, the Journal Star reports.

The mission is thankful for his help. The lunch crowd is thankful for his vittles. And Rasberry is thankful for the service opportunity.

“I’m grateful for being able to give time to help this organization,” he says.

Rasberry — or Ras, as he’s known by friends — grew up in South Peoria with seven siblings. With so many mouths to feed, their mother expected occasional help in the kitchen.

“My mom raised us to learn how to cook,” he says.

In 1968, he left Manual High School to join the Navy, serving in the Mediterranean Sea until 1971. He returned to Peoria and worked the production line at Caterpillar Inc. until retiring in 2002.

Rasberry has one adult son but lives alone in South Peoria. Not long after retiring, he began attending the Church of the Living God in Northwest Peoria. A few years ago, he started preparing snacks and meals for the church’s youth program.

“I like to cook,” he says. “And I like the kids.”

But about four years ago, he heard about the mission’s culinary school. Each year, about 20 students graduate from the school’s 12-week programs. There is no tuition, though the mission interviews applicants, most of whom are 18 to 35 years old and looking to turn their lives around with a new career.

Rasberry had no desire to rejoin the workforce. But he figured classes would help him in whipping up food for his church kids. Chef Chris Franzoni, who runs the mission’s culinary program, was impressed with Rasberry’s goal — and even more impressed by his performance in class.

“Ras was good,” Franzoni says. “He came here with a purpose. He has a passion, and that’s the main thing.

“He likes to cook. And he likes to serve.”

Rasberry learned not only kitchen skills but also healthier habits. He learned to do less frying and more baking. And he developed a taste for vegetables, especially cabbage.

“I thank chef Chris for that,” he says.

After graduating, Rasberry decided to give back to the mission. Each weekday, from about 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., he pretty much runs the soup kitchen. First, he prepares the meal: One of his specialties is chicken Parmesan with mashed potatoes and green beans.

“That’s a good one,” he says.

At 11:45 a.m., lunch visitors begin to arrive. After a devotion by a mission staffer, Rasberry throws open the kitchen doors and dishes out meals to about 25 guests, most of them familiar faces.

“I enjoy the camaraderie with the people I meet here,” he says. “Those people give me inspiration to come another day and make another meal, just the way they compliment me.”

He pauses, smiles and adds, “I don’t miss that couch. It’ll be there when I get home.”

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