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Without its founder, soup kitchen works through challenges

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Barbara Taft helps in the kitchen during the annual Thanksgiving meal at JOY Soup Kitchen on Nov. 11, 2017.

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By Kim Grizzard
The Daily Reflector

Friday, September 14, 2018

The surprise waiting for the lunch crowd was not dessert, but it was just as sweet. For the first time in more than six months, Coordinator Barbara Taft was there to greet people at the JOY Soup Kitchen on Monday.

“I came in and said 'Good morning,' and everybody stopped eating and started hugging,” Taft said. “So I know they care something about me and some of them are thankful for what we do here.”

Monday was the first time Taft had stepped through the doors since January, when doctors had cautioned her that continuing her work there was a threat to her immune system. It’s the longest she has been away from JOY (Jesus, Others and You) Soup Kitchen in nearly 25 years.

“Every day somebody comes in and asks and (says) to tell her hello and they're thinking about her,” said Vivian Bryant, who serves alongside Taft's sister, Shirley House, on the kitchen staff. “Some things you can't replace.”

When it opened in 1994, JOY replaced the Greenville Soup Kitchen that had operated for years at Mount Hermon Lodge. In 1995, Taft and Jean Dawson, who had been serving meals at York Memorial AME Zion Church, moved to the current location on Albemarle Avenue.

Here, JOY serves 25,000 meals a year, feeding more than 100 people a day five days a week. The nonprofit organization also provides clothing and serves as a site for free health screenings.

“We try to look out for them,” said Taft, who at 77 is a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. “ “It's hard. So many people don't have what we have.”

Born and raised in Greenville, Taft has been taking care of her community for almost as long as she can remember.

“If (someone) was barefooted, if I had a shoe that fit their size, I would give it to them,” Taft said, “just little things.”

She recalls how giving away food to hungry children in the neighborhood would sometimes bring a scolding from her mother, who worried that her own family might not have enough to make ends meet.

Today, JOY Soup Kitchen is facing similar financial circumstances. Board treasurer John Lennox said that following about five years of financial struggles, the organization needs about $35,000 in donations by the end of the year to keep from having to close its doors. Lennox said about half the $40,000-a-year it costs to run the program goes to pay for building expenses, including utilities, insurance and maintenance.

“We don't spend any money on food,” he said. “We're rich in donated food.

“We've got churches that are here. We've got a lot of volunteer support. We've got a lot of community support,” Lennox said, adding that about half a dozen local restaurants donate food to the organization. “But we've got bills we've got to pay.”

To keep the doors open, board members and other volunteers have written grants, launched a GoFundMe campaign and held restaurant fundraisers. JOY Soup Kitchen also submitted an entry for First Horizon Foundation's 25 Years of Giving video contest. Winners, to be announced on Oct. 1, will receive grants ranging from $5,000 to $25,000.

The soup kitchen receives some income from renting office space to Disabled American Veterans Chapter 37 and the North Carolina Council of Church's Partners in Health and Wellness program.

JOY board member Rodney Coles said fundraising, along with running the day-to-day operations in Taft's continued absence, has been challenging.

“Barbara has been the real backbone of the organization,” Coles said. “I was blown away by all the things she has to do. It's a lot of work.”

Board member Jim Cox, a former social worker, said that as the only soup kitchen in Greenville, JOY fills a need that food pantries cannot fill.

“A lot of people that come here don't have a facility to be able to prepare a lunch,” he said. “(Here) they don't have to take it back home and they don't have to cook it. There are a significant percentage of people here that come here because of that.”

The Rev. Lester Jacobs, chairman of JOY's board of directors, recalls how one man who came to the soup kitchen for meals each day lived in his truck.

“I asked him where did he sleep,” Jacobs said. “He said, 'I sleep in the back of the truck in the Walmart parking lot.' He said, 'I'm so grateful for this place.'”

Coles knew the story well and said that Taft helped that man, who was a veteran, to apply for housing. He now has an apartment.

It is no wonder that when Taft came by the soup kitchen for a long overdue visit so many people stopped to give her a hug.

“Some of these people that come in here come in and started calling me mom,” Taft said. “Some of them don't have a mom.

“We feed them. We clothe them, and we love them.”

For more information about JOY Soup Kitchen, visit the website at joysoupkitchen.org or visit facebook.com/joysoupkitchen. To donate, call 320-9292 or mail checks to JOY Soup Kitchen, c/o St Timothy’s Episcopal Church, 107 Louis St., Greenville, NC 27858. To volunteer, call 561-7519.

Contact Kim Grizzard at kgrizzard@reflector.com and 252-329-9578.

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