Above, Yanira Lopez Monzon, left, and Mary Ramos work in the Casa Maria Soup Kitchen of Catholic Charities at Guadalupe Social Services in Immokalee. Most of kitchen equipment is new and made possible thanks to the generosity of donors. Below, Monzon prepares to put ingredients into a soup kettle. (PHOTO BY BOB REDDY | FC)

Simple appeal gets overwhelming response

Immokalee  |  There was a time, not too long ago, when Yanira Lopez Monzon would dread starting her day at the Casa Maria Soup Kitchen in Immokalee. The kitchen manager always worried whether or not the 40-gallon kettle, used nearly every day, would work properly.

Other equipment, including the commercial oven, stove, ice machine and dishwasher were all showing their age from constant use. No one really knew when the equipment had been purchased, but everyone who volunteered in the Catholic Charities-run kitchen knew upgrades were badly needed.

“We called in someone regularly to make repairs,” Lopez Monzon said. “There was just a point early in the year when we had to decide to get a new kettle because they don’t make the parts anymore.”

Casa Maria Soup Kitchen, a program of Guadalupe Social Services of Catholic Charities, serves hot meals to about 100 men, women and children each weekday throughout the year, so a loss of the kettle, or any of the kitchen equipment, was potentially devastating.

Guadalupe Social Services Program Coordinator Peggy Rodriguez knew that a fundraising campaign needed to happen immediately when a grant application was declined and the cost of repairs to extend the life of the kettle was too great to justify. The initial goal was to raise $23,000 for a replacement kettle, something that initially seemed out reach.

“We put out an appeal and prayed hard because without the kettle we knew everything would have been much more difficult,” Rodriguez said. “We are in a poor community and did not know how long it would take to raise the money.

Rodriguez and all of those who know about the Casa Maria Soup Kitchen needn’t have worried because the response was inspiring and overwhelming. 

The stellar reputation of the programs of Catholic Charities in Immokalee inspired many to respond generously with donations large and small  to the appeal and within a few months, the money to purchase a new kettle and other kitchen equipment were realized. In fact, the support kept coming in and total donations to the campaign now exceed $100,000.

 “Our prayers were answered,” Rodriguez explained. “The response from the community has been wonderful.”

That money has been used to give the kitchen a major upgrade. First on the list was, of course, a new 60-gallon kettle. Other equipment included a range, convection oven, double door refrigerator, prep table, filtration system on the ice machine, booster heater for the dishwasher and an upgraded electrical system to handle all of the new equipment. Other new items included tables and chairs for the dining area, providing a more comfortable dining experience.

 “It’s absolutely amazing,” Lopez Monzon said with a huge smile as she added ingredients to the kettle which is nearly as large as she is. “The kettle boils water in 20 minutes. The old one took up to two hours. The ovens heat up everything so fast. Everything is new and wonderful. The changes have been incredible.”

When the old kettle was removed it was determined to have been installed in 1995, some 24 years ago. With near constant use, the equipment did its job well. However, the new kettle and other items in the kitchen will get lots of use as the soup kitchen serves about 17,000 people each year. Another added benefit to the new equipment is that it is all energy efficient and will help reduce the long-term electrical costs.

In addition to the soup kitchen, Guadalupe Social Services has a food pantry that in the past fiscal year distributed 8,243 bags of food, a pantry on wheels which distributed another 3,826 bags of food, a clothing room provided 2,813 items of clothes, a shower room offered 1,162 showers, and financial assistance was provided to 818 individuals and families for prescriptions, utilities and rent. Other items distributed included 1,729 packages of diapers, 60 cribs, 11 strollers. There are also services for immigration, food stamps, English as a Second Language, and other forms of advocacy. 

“We are more than the Casa Maria Soup Kitchen,” Rodriguez explained. “We are here to alleviate the suffering in Immokalee with compassion, integrity, and empathy.”

Immokalee, which is inland from Naples and Fort Myers, has long been a region of poor migrant workers. Half of the population lives at or below the poverty level. Over the years, more families have chosen to make Immokalee their permanent home and work in low-income jobs such as landscaping, the hospitality industry, and restaurant work along with work in the fields and at the packing houses. There is an extreme culture of poverty that exists in the town of Immokalee.

Guadalupe Social Services aims to empower the people through assistance provided to them, but its main goals are to ensure human dignity and enhance the quality of life for all individuals served. Guadalupe Social Services focuses on offering the basic needs of food, shelter, clothing, and household items, stability and education.

While the donations to the appeal have made an immediate impact to the Casa Maria Soup Kitchen, the need is still great. It costs about $500 a day to run the kitchen. While food comes from local food banks and parishes, or is donated by local supermarkets and restaurants, it is a weekly struggle to have enough to meet the needs of the community.

Volunteer groups from Diocesan Parishes and other houses of worship in Collier and Lee counties help staff the kitchen as cooks or servers.

“We are always looking for support for the kitchen and for our other programs,” Rodriguez said. “The donations for the kitchen addressed an urgent need, and we are grateful. However, there is a constant need throughout the year for support in terms of donations of money, food and time.”