The side door at the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen is not much to look at. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, its primary use was as an entry/exit and the place for patrons to go when they missed the sit-down meal service. But since the pandemic and its restrictions took hold in the Mercer County region , the side door has become a sort of portal to the one thing that might make a moment or an entire life, a little better.
“Essentially, everything non-food related can be found at the side door,” said TASK Patron and Volunteer Services Specialist Evie Spadafora who works the door every other week.
Typically, patrons are referred to the side door after picking up their meals from TASK’s front door. The soup kitchen has been serving to-go meals from its front door since the TASK dining room at Escher Street was closed on March16 to help stem the spread of COVID-19. The side door is open for service, 10:30am-2pm, Monday-Friday – same as meal service. There is always a line, Spadafora said, especially now with everyone practicing physical distancing; the busiest times are between opening and 11:15 am. Patrons can choose from a posted menu of available services such as help with employment. Donated items, such as clothes, hygiene bags, reading glasses, and the occasional odd donation, are also available from the side door.
“We have a bunch of tennis balls that were donated,” said Spadafora who recently gave a patron first-aid from the side door, cleaning and rebandaging his finger. “We try to make use of everything, so now patrons use them on the bottom of their canes.”
In addition to the tangible items obtained there, TASK’s side door also provides things unseen. In a recent survey, TASK patrons expressed feelings of isolation since the restrictions imposed by the pandemic took effect. As a result, the side door has also become a conduit for communication.
“People just like to talk,” Spadafora said. “This may be the only place during this pandemic where they can talk to another human being. It gives them a place to vent, talk about the dollar they found on the curb or the fact their beloved aunt just died – whatever it is they need to be heard.”
TASK staff also uses the side door to communicate with patrons. For Case Manager Whitney Hendrickson that meant getting food, a list of pantries and places were a mother and her two sons could get meals on the weekends.
“During this pandemic, I’ve been reconnecting with about 30 families that I work with year-round, that right now, have needs that are not being addressed because of the pandemic,” Hendrickson said, adding that she often packages food from TASK along with other items and leaves them at the side door for the families to pick up.
Senior Case Manager Julie Janis said most of the patrons she currently works with, have been referred to her from the side door via Spadafora and other staff who work the door. She sends patrons messages and delivers items and information, such as the arrival of a birth certificate.
“That’s a big thing because they need them to get identification for housing and a multitude of other services,” Janis said.
Although she has been able to do outreach through a combination of the side door, working from her home and some days on site during the pandemic, Janis is eager to get back to some semblance of normalcy.
“I will feel better when I can get back into the office on a daily basis,” she said, lamenting that she is not seeing the volume she did before the pandemic shut down. “We are doing a lot, but we are used to doing more and doing it face-to-face.”