Detroit — Respect and dignity were the driving forces behind the nearly $800,000 renovation of the Capuchin Services Center, which was started Jan. 12 and completed March 30.
“It’s so much more respectful and dignified for our guests for them to be able to shop like they would at a grocery store,” said George Gaerig, operations manager of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, which operates the center.
Prior to the opening of the Capuchin Services Center 20 years ago, the Capuchins distributed take-home food to families out of the back door of the soup kitchen, which stored the goods in the basement.
In the two decades since the center has existed, it provided those it helps on a monthly basis with one or more 36-pound prepackaged boxes of staple food (depending on the number of people in their household), as well as whatever fresh food, vegetables and milk that was available.
“Every box was exactly the same,” Gaerig said. “On top of that, they got 10 pounds of chicken, 2 pounds of ground turkey and anything else we might have on hand that people donated. That could be bread, potatoes, fruit and vegetables.
“We always worried that if we gave someone 60 pounds of food and they gave 10 pounds away because they or their kids didn’t like this or that then in essence they’re only getting 50 pounds of food,” he said. “In the new situation, it’s like a grocery store. They can take what they want as long as they stay within their limit. People can plan their menus. If the kids like corn and hate green beans, they can leave the green beans and double up on the corn.
“Now, after you select your items that are allotted by weight, then you go to the potatoes, onions, lettuce, bread, whatever we’ve got and that goes on top,” Gaerig explained. “So you may be awarded 60 pounds, but you might leave with close to 100 pounds of food.”
The center serves between 160-180 families per day, which translates to between 3,600 to 4,000 families every month. A single eligible person qualifies for 40 pounds of food. A family of seven or eight might get as much as 80 pounds of staples before the fresh items are added.
The center also has a clothing department and an area that distributes donated furniture and appliances. Kohl’s donated the clothing racks to replace bars suspended from the ceiling to make it easier to navigate with shopping carts and make it look more like a retail environment.
Gaerig said the entire renovation, which also included a new parking lot, a new roof and refrigeration equipment upgrades, was funded completely via donations.
“It was all done with donations without the need for a capital campaign,” he said. “We had a good year. The only reason we do what we do is because our benefactors are so generous.”
Benefactors include Kroger, which donated shelving, fruit and vegetable islands and bread racks from a store that was itself remodeling.
During the renovation, which also included a front lobby expansion to accommodate up to 40 waiting guests, families were served in the facility’s garage so no service was interrupted.
Bro. Jerry Smith, OFM Cap., executive director of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, which runs the center along with the soup kitchen’s two locations, the On the Rise Bakery and the Jefferson House addiction recovery facility, has seen the center grow and is leading it into the future.
“Back in 1979, when I was a newly professed Capuchin, people came to the back door of the Soup Kitchen to pick up food to take home,” Bro. Smith recalled. “When I came back in 2005 there was all this. We were passing out these huge boxes of food to people.
“George and I have been talking for about seven years about doing something to improve our services here,” he said. “Finally we just said, ‘Let’s do it.’ Fortunately we had the resources and the support. This is the coming practice in food pantries and we’re just proud that we could do it.”
Bro. Smith summed up the work of the Capuchins in Detroit by saying, “We are Franciscans and St. Francis is said to have exhorted his followers to ‘Preach the Gospel. Use words if necessary.’”
Tim Keenan is a freelance writer based in Farmington Hills.