Lake Norman & Mooresville

Giving support with meals and respect

Charlie was one of those homeless people who never kept the attention of passers-by, just faded into the background.

His hair was unkempt and his clothes were raggedy. He hardly talked, and when he did, he mumbled. No one knew his last name.

But when he came to Angels and Sparrows Soup Kitchen in Huntersville, volunteers gave him the same respect they give everyone.

They brought his food to him instead of making him wait at the counter. They carefully watched his beverage to make sure it never got too low before refilling it. They asked him how his day was going, even though they'd come not to expect much of a response.

But most importantly, the volunteers didn't push him: not to give them his name, not to tell them his story, not to do anything.

What the volunteers did do was feed Charlie a warm meal every time he came through the door, and knit him a blanket and hat for the winter months.

Slowly, Charlie began to open up to volunteers, said Angels and Sparrows founder Sandy Tilley.

Charlie's last name was not used in this article to protect his privacy.

Charlie revealed to soup kitchen volunteers that he'd endured severe family losses during his life.

Then, one day, Charlie came into the soup kitchen barely recognizable. He'd cut his hair, shaved his face, bought new clothes.

"I was amazed. He told me, 'I've been a recluse for 40 years. This soup kitchen has saved my life,'" said Tilley.

For many, Angels and Sparrows gives more than just food to fill empty stomachs. The soup kitchen provides support and friendship.

Representatives from every walk of life visit the soup kitchen each day, said Tilley.

And although most of her patrons aren't homeless, many live in dire housing conditions. Some do not have windows on their homes and others don't have indoor plumbing or heat.

At least here, said volunteer Anne McGraw of Charlotte, patrons feel comfortable. "They feel at home here," she said.

Angels and Sparrows opened its doors two years ago, but Tilley has been dreaming of starting a soup kitchen for decades.

Although Tilley's parents were alcoholics, she described her childhood home as immaculate and said she was never without food or shelter.

"My parents were loving people, they were just sick," said Tilley.

It wasn't until years later that she found out her extended family had kept her family afloat.

"My mom and dad could have been on the streets if it weren't for my extended family," she said.

In that same spirit, Tilley lends a helping hand to everyone who walks into her soup kitchen. She sits down and talks with them. Perhaps most important, she treats them with dignity and respect.

"I'm empathetic with people," she said. "I can see why they do the things they do and why some people never get out of it - because no one is there to encourage them and tell them they can."

Kathy Peltz, a volunteer since the genesis of Angels and Sparrows, credits the soup kitchen's reputation for quality food and service to Tilley's passion for helping others.

"She puts her heart and soul into every piece of food she makes," said Peltz.

Yet if it hadn't been for a few gracious church members, her ministry might not be standing today, said Tilley.

When Tilley moved to Charlotte from Atlanta and started looking for possible locations, many told her Huntersville wouldn't be appropriate because of its affluent population.

She soon realized that there were pockets of impoverished communities all around town, such as the mobile-home park near the soup kitchen's present location.

After several months of persistence, New Friendship Presbyterian Church USA leased Tilley the land to build a soup kitchen. Independence Hill Baptist Church members volunteered to help her build.

By the end of that first day of construction, Tilley said, they had a roof. Angels and Sparrows opened its doors for its first lunch Oct. 6, 2008.

Since then, traffic has steadily increased. In its first year, the soup kitchen served 22,000 meals. In its second year, that number was up to 35,000.

While the community has delivered her a steady supply of canned food items, bread and volunteers, Tilley said, she really needs help with collecting perishables such as fruit, vegetables and dairy products.

With those products, she'll be able to provide more well-rounded and nutritious meals to the poor - something she said God instructed her to do many years ago.

"It brings me a lot of joy and fulfillment to be able to serve these people," she said. "I have the least amount of money I've ever had, but I couldn't be happier."