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Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, November 24, 2011

Labor, supplies, and food — “Everything is donated,” says Goodrich,
Loaves and Fishes Café hosts a daily miracle with “manna from heaven”

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

SCHOHARIE — The Loaves and Fishes Café takes its name from a miracle, described in the Bible: Jesus twice fed thousands of people with a scant few loaves and fishes.

The café’s name is written in black marker on brown paper and taped to the wall of Heritage House on Main Street in Schoharie. The bottoms of its walls were ripped out after mucky water from Tropical Storm Irene flooded the Schoharie Valley in late August.

Every day, scores of people file by the sign as they help themselves to hearty food, dished out by volunteers — for free.

“It’s like manna from heaven,” said Janis Bassett who helps run the eatery. She went on about the donated food. “It just comes in.”

Heritage House belongs to the church next door, and used to be an elegant venue furnished with antiques, said Bassett. She’s not a member of the church but had attended garden club parties at the historic house.

Since Irene, the Schoharie Reformed Church has become a soup kitchen, a supply center, a dispatch point for volunteer labor, and more. All this, while the church building itself is in disarray, ravaged by floodwaters.

“If we could get the heat on, we’d probably have a full house,” said a man working on repairs at the church last Friday.

“Everything is donated,” said Sarah Goodrich, who is at the center of the beehive of activity. “We started out with this table,” she says, leaning on a small, white plastic table that now serves as her desk in a donated trailer behind the church.

Looking out the trailer’s window over the crowded parking lot — filled with the vehicles of both volunteers and flood survivors — she says, “We went to tarps, and more tarps. Then we were given a camper, and a trailer, a shed.”

One building serves as a general store with everything from toys and linens to pet food and toothpaste — all donated and all free to those who need it.

“We kept expanding to meet the needs,” said Goodrich. “We coordinate with the other centers.” (See related story.)

“Our job is to find the people with needs and plug them into services,” she said. “Our main focus is getting volunteers in and sending them back out. We keep in contact with local families to see what they need.”

How many have helped? “A month ago, we counted; we had well over 5,000 volunteers.” She added, “That’s an extremely conservative number…Many haven’t signed in.”

“It’s based on people wanting to help,” said Goodrich. “Once they’ve helped here, they want to come back.”

Some, who were helped in Iowa, when the Mississippi overflowed its banks, came to help in Schoharie. “We think we had it bad,” said Goodrich. “They had terrible flooding, with water standing on their fields for weeks.”

Volunteers have ranged from family groups to the elderly, she said. One mother-daughter team that had helped in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina came to help.

“They’re people who want to help and aren’t afraid to do what is asked,” said Goodrich. That can be anything from scooping a foot of mud out of a basement to cleaning out a nasty smelling refrigerator to ripping down moldy walls to picking up debris from farm fields.

Hot food, warm hearts

A hot meal is served in the middle of each day, seven days a week. “All the food is donated and we never, ever run out,” said Goodrich.

“It has grown and grown,” continued Goodrich, who is retired from running a catering business.

She oversees a core staff of a dozen or so volunteers. Emily Davis, a well-known cave explorer and bat expert, heads up the café along with Bassett, a retired teacher.

“Thank goodness for baby boomers,” Goodrich said of those energetic volunteers who have recently retired. Weekdays, 75 to 100 typically come to eat; on holidays and weekends, there are 200 to 300.

“At first, there was no place for people to buy food,” recalled Goodrich. “Now, there are a few places in town where people can eat, but it’s expensive to eat out and their money needs to go other places.”

Their energy, too, is needed elsewhere; this way, they don’t have to spend valuable time shopping for and preparing food. “Most people are not back in their homes,” said Goodrich.

Locals are joined at the tables by volunteers — some from as far away as the Carolinas or Michigan — who have come to help them. “This is one way to help the volunteers,” said Goodrich, “so they don’t have to stop to find food.”

The meals do more than feed the body; they feed the soul. “Equally important,” said Goodrich, “is the ability to share support, back and forth, between neighbors. Communication is difficult. People are displaced. Friends and neighbors are separated. People can share information here and keep updated.”

She concluded, “The camaraderie and support is as important as the food.”

The food, unasked for, has come from individuals and groups. “Many individuals show up with a pot of chili,” said Goodrich. A lot of faith-based groups — from Herkimer, Mohawk, Saratoga, Albany, and Altamont — make regular contributions.

“Some people just show up,” said Goodrich. “Other groups call ahead and schedule.”

Occasionally, restaurants have catered for the crowd. For Thanksgiving Day, Equinox has joined with the town of Richmondville to provide a dinner, open to the entire county, which will be served at the Holiday Inn Express.

Variety of volunteers

Although Bassett is not a member of the Schoharie Reformed Church, she got involved because she is a long-time friend of Goodrich and she wanted to help her community.

“We were high and dry,” she said of her house, untouched by floodwaters. “I didn’t lose anything; all my friends lost everything,” said Bassett. “The least I can do is feed them.”

She has been at it since Labor Day weekend.

Bassett is planning to take a long-ago scheduled flight to Florida on Dec. 27 at 1:15 p.m. But she’ll still coordinate for the café since most of it can be done by phone and e-mail, said Bassett. Anyone who wants to donate may call Bassett at 231-7641 or e-mail her at janis.bassett@yahoo.com.

Many of the donations come in through word of mouth. “I got called last night by someone who wants to give me a whole beef,” she said on Friday.

Typically, two to three soups are served every day along with stews and pasta dishes. Bassett is compiling a cookbook of the recipes that are served at the Loaves and Fishes Café; it will be called Good Eating From Bad Times.

“Most of the village still does not have facilities — no heat, no electricity,” said Bassett. “It’s like a ghost town at night. There are no lights.”

She went on about the café, “This is the one hot meal they get during the day.”

“I love coming here, not just to help Schoharie, but for the camaraderie of the volunteers,” said Anita Riccio on Friday as she served the mid-day meal.

A retired special-education teacher, she lives in Rotterdam, and volunteered last summer in Haiti where she worked at orphanages. “Here, there will be a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said, comparing the situation in Haiti to that in Schoharie.

She recalled sleeping on an air mattress at night in Haiti and, in the daytime, “We would go to orphanages and just hold babies,” she said. Riccio also gave manicures and pedicures to the sick and elderly and sang “Frere Jacques” to them, which was the only French she knew.

“Irene was in Haiti when I left. She followed me home,” said Riccio. She enjoyed the picnic atmosphere this summer when meals were cooked on a gas grill and served under tarps among the giant pines behind the church.

She plans to keep on volunteering. “I’ll come as long as my Mini Cooper can make it,” she said, anticipating the heavy snows of winter.

Another volunteer, Carol McMichael, lives in Schoharie. “My kids went to school here. These are my neighbors,” she said of her reasons for volunteering.

Wendy Beever was also on hand Friday, having brought several clients from the Schoharie County ARC (originally, the Association of Retarded Citizens), where she works.

“We make the meals and bring them here”’ said Beevers of her clients. “They like to help others.”

The flooding destroyed a house in the village that displaced five ARC residents, she said. “They’ve helped make the meals,” she said of those displaced villagers who have been moved to other homes.

Riccio said she is often touched by those she serves. “Last time I was here, this woman came in with two children,” she said. She hadn’t known about the Loaves and Fishes Café before.

“You know how it is, when you’re a mother,” said Riccio, “and the first thing you think of is what you’re going to be feeding your family. Well, this woman said, ‘Every morning, I’d get up and think, what am I going to give my family for dinner. Now, I don’t have to worry about that anymore.’”

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