Meal site offers safe place to reflect

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series that highlights the people and programs of the Charter House Coalition, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing basic food and housing to people in need in and around Middlebury. Cate Costley, a junior at Middlebury College, worked this past summer with the coalition. Through this work she had the chance to connect and converse with individuals who receive assistance through the coalition’s programs.
Here, Costley shares the stories of those she met and tells how these stories helped shape her own experience.
MIDDLEBURY — The setting is simple: a room filled with checkered tablecloths, plastic cups, folding chairs and paper napkins. The food is homespun: baked beans, chicken and rice casserole and fudgy brownies. The sounds are familiar: the hum of conversation, the shuffle of feet and the quiet melody of a piano.
But it is the people who are most vivid in my mind. It is the individuals who stay with me, in all their dignity and pain and hope.
The people who arrive at Community Lunch and Community Supper come from all corners of the Middlebury community; they come from all walks of life and all kinds of backgrounds.
But every day this past summer, I saw how a shared meal has the ability to bring us together. By serving a satisfying, healthy, free meal to hungry diners at Community Lunch on the weekdays and Community Supper on Friday evenings, I saw how food and conversation have the ability to nourish, bring joy, and foster friendship.
Every individual I met this summer has a story and a voice. I am humbled and honored that these individuals gave me permission to interview them and share their words. To ensure their anonymity, names and places have been changed, but the words are wholly their own.
One morning, I sat down with a woman named Sandy who is a regular lunch guest. As people began to trickle into the Charter House dining room, she greeted them from her regular spot. She helped out her fellow diners — setting silverware on the table, helping a disabled man get a plate of food, and clearing the dishes away at the end of the meal. She did it quietly and without prompting. At lunch, Sandy tended not to talk much about herself, but she, too, had a story to tell.
“Good thing you weren’t in our family,” she began. “Well, my family’s like, one minute they get along and the next minute they don’t. That type of thing.”
I asked about her childhood and she continued, “I’ve been in foster homes. I was about 12 years old and I moved from one place to another. By myself. Because the state figured my mom and dad couldn’t take care of me. About four years. A lot a people took advantage of me. I’ve been sexually assaulted. And a gun (was) pointed to my head. I managed to get through it all.”
Sandy’s voice was raw and honest; she was not trying to shock me or seek pity. She was simply telling her story. We returned to the topic of her family and she said, “I wouldn’t say my dad was a good father. He used to take a plate of food, and he used to throw it on the ground. He says, ‘I ain’t eating that shit.’ So my ma says, ‘You’re not gonna get another damn meal so you can cook your own.’”
Sandy then shifted gears. “My dad’s buried up in Huntington. Died of diabetes complications. That was back a year ago. He had one leg amputated. They wanted to take the other one. My dad said no. And he passed away. (Diabetes) runs in the whole family. I got it. My brother’s got it. My sister and her kid’s got it.”
The patchwork of her family — a family troubled by abuse, health issues and mental illness — began to take shape in my mind. It seemed like a hopelessly difficult situation. But then Sandy continued:
“Now I (live) with my mom and help her out, because she can’t do things on her own. And I take her around and do her shopping and pay her bills. She lives right here in Middlebury. I moved to Middlebury a couple — two or three — years ago. With my mom. And my brother (lives) with us, too.”
Somehow, despite their pain, this family was finding a way to carry on. And Sandy is a big part of that, with the support of Charter House Coalition.
“I help bring meals to her that I get from (Community Lunch). She’s over 60. And she’s got cataracts in one of her eyes. I started coming to Lunch and Supper this year. I like it pretty well, because it comes in handy. I like all the meals they make here and I bring them home for everyone, too. I’m trying to take care of my family right now. Staying out of mischief.”
She smiled as she said this, and I smiled, too. Our conversation was drawing to a close, but Sandy had one more thing to say:
“I keep myself busy and I keep my mind off (the hard stuff). Yeah, because there ain’t no sense in dwelling on it, cause it makes you go downhill. So, make friends — new friends. Try to get out and enjoy yourself.”
With that, Sandy turned back to her plate of food. In all her pain, dignity and hope, she carried on with her day.
At another point during the summer, I sat down with a middle-aged man named Manny one morning in the dining room. He is a more sporadic Community Lunch guest. Some days he is at ease and gregarious. Other days he’s disheveled and taciturn. Today was a talkative, amiable day for him. We talked about his childhood and the kids he grew up with. He told me what some of those kids are doing now — getting MBAs, working at banks, launching tech companies. He turned to me and said, “I used to be that smart, but then I got diagnosed with schizophrenia in my early 20s and that made things a lot harder. ” He continued, “I was addicted to pot and alcohol and that didn’t help either.”
I nodded with all the gentleness I could convey and then asked him, “But how are you doing today?” And he looked right at me and said, “Some days are better than others, but today is A-OK.”
And that was all. It was just a simple chat over lunch. But it was also evidence of one man’s dignity in the face of setback and addiction and thwarted dreams. His ability to carry on and make progress and create a life for himself. And coming to Community Lunch is an important part of that life he is carving out.
I am thankful to have shared that time with Manny, and thankful that this community has created a space for those conversations to occur.
In the space of Community Lunch, I found that people were gratified to be asked about themselves. They were pleased to be asked to share. One Monday morning, a man named Wes opened up and shared his story.
“I grew up in (the Midwest). I was raised there. I lived there until my junior year of high school. And then I went to a high school in (a different state) because I was learning disabled. I struggled with everything.” After a brief pause, Wes continued, “But I did real well there.” I smiled and asked him where he went next.
“Then I moved to Vermont and I worked for (a dairy farm in Middlebury). I was there for over year, but I didn’t like getting up at 2 o’clock in the morning every other day, to milk the cows — five hours of milking, 365 days a year — you don’t get a break. And then after (that), I went from farm to farm … In December of 2009, I (began) work at a farm in Bridport. The problem was this guy wouldn’t give me a day off.” Wes shook his head and added, “Yeah, I think that guy was taking advantage of me.”
There was frustration in Wes’s voice, and also a current of sadness.
“I got burned out. I worked 10 months. Then I moved into (transitional housing). And I was in there for three months. When I was (in transitional housing), no work. When I was on the farm and in transitional housing, I had a mental illness. I drank a lot and stuff like that. I’ve been stable for a long time. I’m on medicine. Now with the medication I’m on, I can’t drink.”
Wes’s voice faltered just a bit, but he then raised his head and continued confidently, “I’m living just one day at a time now, but I’m doing good. I don’t have many friends, but I’m trying to make some. I like the community. I’m active in (my church) here. When I first moved to Middlebury, I started coming to Community Lunch and Supper, too. When I first saw the sign, I figured it would be all old-timers, but now I know that it’s different. And then I learned it was for low-income people, too. And I learned it was for anyone. It’s been real good for me.”
He nodded and said again, “It’s been real good for me.” I nodded as well and thanked him for talking with me.
I got up from my seat, my chest filled with both happiness and sadness. Wes’s story, like so many of the individuals at lunch, is not free from pain and discouragement, but he, too, is finding a way forward. He, too, is carving out a life for himself. For Wes, Community Lunch and Supper and his church are important parts of that life he is building.
The community meals are places of acceptance and safety. No judgment, no rejection, no dismissal, no derision. At lunch and supper the leaders and volunteers of the Charter House Coalition have created a culture of giving freely and without judgment.
At the beginning of the summer, I sometimes found myself frustrated and critical when someone pushed to the front of the line or piled their plate high with cookies or demanded five takeouts from me. I judged people with body odor or those reeling from drugs. But with time and from watching the other volunteers, I saw that my frustration and disparagement were small-minded. We all carry pain with us, some more than others, and I need to do what I can to lessen that pain. I need to be the smiling face and the voice that says, “Yes, of course I can do that for you” when everyone else said no and slammed the door.
As I move forward, I hope to bring this awareness and compassion with me.
As I move forward, I will remember how the community of people at lunch and supper opened its arms and hearts to me — freely and graciously. They welcomed me to their lives and shared their stories with me.
I will remember their faces and their voices. They have taught me so much.
I want to thank them, and I want to invite you to join us at Community Lunch or Supper one day. The door is open, the welcome is warm and there are always stories to share.
The Middlebury Community Lunches take place Mondays at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on the green, and Tuesdays-Thursdays at the Charter House, from 11:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m. The Community Suppers are Fridays, 5-6:15 p.m. at the Congregational Church Fellowship Hall.
Read Part 1 in Cate Costley’s series on the Charter House Coaltion here.
Watch Cate Costley’s slideshow on the Community Lunches here.

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