When you think of soup kitchens, what comes to mind? A bowl of soup and a hunk of bread? A Depression era-like line of men and women?
If you are visiting the Angels and Sparrows soup kitchen in Huntersville, you will see just the opposite.
Angels and Sparrows, located in a new building on the property of New Friendship Presbyterian Church on Old Statesville Road, celebrated its first anniversary on Oct. 6. The brainchild of Sandy Tilley, the kitchen serves lunch every weekday from 11 a.m. - 1 p.m.
Senior volunteer Pay Levesque says that while Huntersville is a more upscale bedroom community of Charlotte, there is a great need in the community.
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"You wouldn't think the need is here," he said, "but last year we served 22,000 meals."
These meals were served to anyone who walked through the door.
"The goal is to make this a safe haven, where we provide nutritious meals to the hungry and needy," he said. "This isn't a traditional soup kitchen. It's a sit-down meal, a full dinner with balanced vegetables, meats, desserts, coffee, everything."
Levesque says that while the kitchen doesn't refuse any food donations it receives, it doesn't necessarily use everything it's given.
"We only serve the best food you can buy or receive," he said.
The kitchen's food is provided by charitable donations as well as paid for by Angels and Sparrows' fundraising efforts. Levesque says the pantries, refrigerators and freezers are always well-stocked.
"That way we have many options for dinner choices," he said.
Levesque, who has volunteered at the kitchen since February 2009, says three regular contributors are Fresh Market in Cornelius, Bradford Farms and Second Harvest. Additionally, area churches are involved.
First Baptist of Huntersville, Huntersville Presbyterian, Independence Hill Baptist and New Friendship Presbyterian are all big supporters, says Levesque.
Part of what makes the Angels and Sparrows facility so welcoming - in addition to the warm smile and warmer meal that greets each patron - is the cleanliness and order of the space.
Inside, a kids' area occupies one corner, complete with books, toys and a chess set for older children. The seating for approximately 100 patrons is immaculate, as are the kitchen, storage and bathroom areas. The soup kitchen is maintained by 400 volunteers, 150 of which are heavily involved.
"We want our patrons to have a good meal in a clean environment," Levesque said.
Eagle Scouts improved the outside of the building by adding an herb garden and outdoor terrace with picnic tables.
Although there is "a lot of activity" by volunteer groups in addition to the kitchen's regular volunteers, Levesque says there are opportunities to do more.
fAlso helping out is the Huntersville Police Department, which donated 15 frozen turkeys for the kitchen's Thanksgiving meal.
Like all volunteer-run organizations, Angels and Sparrows sees a challenge in making sure everyone who signs up to work actually shows up.
According to Levesque a growing problem is how to involve new volunteers while retaining current "dedicated, committed volunteers."
With several hundred names on the roster, the kitchen is still receiving new applications.
In the future, the kitchen plans to add a walk-in freezer and additional dry storage space, which will open more area in the dining room. While the average daily patronage is 100 people, Levesque says the kitchen will serve as many people as are allowed into the building under fire code.
He also says Angels and Sparrows will make continuous efforts to raise funds to sustain its high level of operation.
While acknowledging that money isn't everything, Levesque said, "this is money-run. It takes money to buy paper products, to buy plates and bowls and forks and knives."
The kitchen is seeing an "outpouring of support" from people and organizations within the community, said Levesque.
"When the (economy) is good, people are stingier. But I've been blown away," he said. "It really is people helping people."