The Damiano Center soup kitchen was buzzing on a recent December morning.
It was chilly inside the facility because the heater was down, but that didn’t stop local volunteers and staff from preparing a bulk meal of spaghetti, salad and more.
And everyone had a different story about what brought them there.
Roger Kurrle and his wife were recruited by fellow members of Lakeside Presbyterian Church. Once a month, Kurrle joins other volunteers in the soup kitchen, and on Tuesdays, he picks up donated, day-old baked goods from Cub Foods, which usually amounts to four shopping carts of bread, pastries and cakes.
Jill Christie has been volunteering since the Damiano was called the “Soup Kitchen.” She meant to do it for a couple visits. That was more than 30 years ago.
And Beth Donaldson started five years ago.
“I enjoy it very much. We’re the real winners here,” she said.
The Damiano has four full-time staff members; the rest is managed by 1,000 volunteers throughout the year, said Kyra Gustafson, community development manager.
The social services organization offers programs such as Clothes That Work, Kids' Kitchen and the Free Store.
They see volunteers from church groups, the colleges and high schools, and they help with everything from work in the kitchen to building maintenance.
“We couldn’t operate without the volunteers,” Gustafson said.
According to Minnesota Public Radio, 9% of Minnesota households struggle with food access, and 1.6 million Minnesotans live in a food desert, where there is little access to healthy food.
The Damiano receives donations a few times a week. They’ve seen leftover sandwiches from Bentleyville and weekly flower bouquet donations, kitchen manager Flora Woodfork said.
Along with Cub, Damiano receives goods from Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank and they order from Upper Lakes Foods. During a recent visit, they received resident donations of organic milk, caramel ice cream, canned beets and carrots.
Check the dates on the cans before storing them, Damiano staffer Richard Howell said. Before the guests arrived for lunch, Howell did a few dance moves for the volunteers.
“The better side of us all is a smile, and when we pay each other one, it makes the whole day better. And it makes the diners and everyone feel better about themselves,” he said.
He’s been working at the Damiano for nine years. Before that, he volunteered for three after being released from prison.
He said the Damiano “gave me purpose, so I was able to survive on that. Purpose has fulfilled a void in my life that’s unimaginable."
“Can I get you ladies to start setting up? Let’s get those in the steamer — it’s almost 11:30,” Woodfork said.
Woodfork, a kitchen staffer and the volunteers recently cooked up 10 gallons of sauce and 8 pounds of pasta. The spaghetti and chili are “famous” around there, she said.
As the kitchen manager, Woodfork is in charge of meal planning. She works with whatever they have in the cooler, and she always tries to have a supply of cooked chicken that they can shred to use in a number of dishes.
They’ve served duck, prime rib and meatloaf with baby potatoes and mixed vegetables.
Woodfork moved to Duluth from Chicago. She grew up in a family with 10 kids, where they were “always cooking” in large amounts.
They can feed anywhere from 200-400, and they’ll see about 75 repeats. They keep track by the number of trays they set out at the serving station.
While volunteers dish out for guests, Woodfork restocks the line or prep the next meal.
In the back, she pulled large pans of chicken out of the oven. Steam rose from the pans as she punctured the birds with with a meat thermometer.
Guests of all ages filtered in through the doors. They were greeted with smiles and chipper offerings from the line and dessert cart. Some guests walked around with flower bouquets, a weekly donation and bakery items. They’re allowed two per visit.
They see larger numbers at the end of the month, and they’ve seen an uptick in numbers the past three. They serve breakfast and lunch Monday and Wednesday, and breakfast, lunch and dinner Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
“Here, they can eat as many times as they want,” she said.
Woodfork looks forward to “watching them enjoy.”
“They be real grateful,” she said.
“They try to poison me with the oranges all the time,” David Carlson joked.
Born and raised in Duluth, Carlson, 70, said he’s a frequent visitor at the Damiano’s Free Store and soup kitchen. As a retiree, his income isn’t what it used to be.
“If I didn’t have this place, I’d be out of luck. ... This is Duluth’s best asset," he said.
Visit damianocenter.org/volunteer for more info on how to volunteer.