It’s being called a miracle by staff, guests and volunteers alike – for the first time in its 36-year history, Loaves and Fishes of Tompkins County has air conditioning, providing relief from the summer heat for everyone who walks through the charity’s doors.
Loaves and Fishes, the Christian ministry soup kitchen located at St. John’s Episcopal Church, has provided a place for free nutritious meals to those in Ithaca and beyond for over three decades, and it has seen many warm summers.
Rev. Christina Culver, executive director, said the heat is more than just an inconvenience – for the volunteers, who are often elders, and the guests, the lack of air conditioning was detrimental to their health.
“Without exaggeration, during the summer, on a typical hot day, it would be over 80 degrees and often hovering around 85,” Culver said. “People weren’t getting any relief. They were coming because they still needed to eat, but then they would leave right away as soon as they could because it’s just so hot.”
That is precisely why, this year, those in the community gave what they could to help provide Loaves and Fishes with air conditioning. It was an effort that began with Marcia Baum, previous director of the Greater Ithaca Activities Center and St. John’s attendee for many years.
As Culver tells it, Baum made it her mission to cool down Loaves and Fishes, and it was a process three years in the making.
In spring of 2018, with Baum’s help, Loaves and Fishes applied for a $5,000-$6,000 grant through the Community Foundation for ceiling fans and corresponding electrical improvements. Though the request was not fulfilled, donations from local organizations allowed the fans to be installed.
That’s where a volunteer named Sandy True came in. She heard through the Community Foundation that Loaves and Fishes was looking for funds for fans, and she decided to take it further – she set out to raise funds for two air conditioning units in addition to the fans already being planned, calling friends and community members to ask for help.
“What happens a lot here in Ithaca is that not-for-profits kind of quietly go about their business, and it’s hard to sometimes know what their true needs are,” True said. “Not-for-profits don’t have time to get out there and shake the trees, so we need to know the story, and I have the time to go tell the story, and then, I can reach out.”
The entire air conditioning installation – including two units in the dining hall, one in the kitchen and electrical improvements, was estimated to cost around $30,000, but True was up to the task. What surprised her most was that those she reached out to were up to it, too.
“I did not have to make any follow-up calls,” True said. “Once they heard the story, they gave what they could, maybe not the number I wanted, but they all gave what they could, and it all added up.”
Some gave as much as $7,000 toward the effort, and True and her husband, Jay, gave $5,000 as well. It wasn’t long before the full amount needed was raised and the project could move forward.
“It’s an example of what we can all do together,” True said.
Culver said people that come to and work with Loaves and Fishes have already noticed the difference.
“There’s many guests and volunteers who have been coming for years, and they’re the most appreciative because they know what it’s been like,” Culver said. “It makes people relax and feel relieved, and they’re not suffering.”
The air conditioning, by making the entire space more comfortable for everyone, helps Loaves and Fishes fulfill its mission, said Rev. Megan Castellan, rector at St. John’s.
“As a priest in the church, I take very seriously when Jesus tells us to love our neighbor, and you can’t love your neighbor if your neighbor is hungry,” Castellen said. “[Air conditioning] goes further in extending hospitality and life-saving care to people who would otherwise go without it.”
Though Loaves and Fishes serves food to an average of 130 people per day, Culver said its purpose goes beyond a warm meal.
“If you’re hungry, you probably have other unmet basic needs, but you wouldn’t necessarily know what resources to turn to to help get those needs addressed,” Culver said. “Our community is about helping folks who are suffering from poverty or chronic mental or physical health challenges get the support and community everybody needs.”
As many connected to the organization can attest, Loaves and Fishes provides a place for guests to learn about services to get them on their feet, as well as a place to come for some good company.
“It’s always been what it pretty much is, which is great food, really interesting cross-section of Ithaca’s society, … and I’ve always enjoyed the atmosphere of the place,” said longtime guest Daniel Burgevin. “There’s nothing like a free, good meal, but there’s also interesting conversation.”
Volunteer Laura Alexander said she has connected with Loaves and Fishes’ origin and goals since it began.
“I very strongly support its faith-based origins and its inclusivity with all cultures, races and how it accepts everyone equally,” she said. “Loaves and Fishes is a wonderfully open community-based organization that provides relationships for people to ground them and to serve them hope.”
Alexander said she and others delighted at the new air conditioning, as it helps Loaves and Fishes continue to do good for the community.
“It really is an improvement for my situation,” she said. “Having air conditioning just allows for a lack of a stressor that doesn’t have to be there. And when people have enough stressors on their life already, it is a boost to their morale.”
As volunteer Sankofa McLaurin aptly sums up, the air conditioning is just part of what makes Loaves and Fishes so crucial to people who need resources, whether that be food or relief from the heat.
“I just think that Loaves and Fishes is a really special place because it could be a second home for anyone,” McLaurin said. “I’ve been here during some summers where it’s been unbearably hot, everyone was so uncomfortable, so the fact that we got this is a miracle.”
Now that the air conditioning is installed, Culver and Castellen said Loaves and Fishes is working on becoming a certified cooling center for the county to continue to provide a break from the heat for anyone who needs it as summers get warmer.
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