University City

Grad students make meals for homeless

At four o'clock last Sunday, Danny Yonto stood in the Center for Graduate Life at UNC Charlotte, surrounded by stacks and stacks, hundreds, of bread heels.

"I was about to make grilled cheese for everybody with them, but it got kind of crazy," said a stunned Yonto, pointing to his small George Forman grill, not nearly big enough to handle the 100 grad students who came to help him make sandwiches for the homeless. He was expecting 30 at the most.

"I think I'm going to let it stale out," he said. "Then I'm going to break it up and donate it for stuffing."

Yonto, 26, a Graduate Life Fellow studying public administration at UNCC, spread the word throughout campus he would be hosting Operation Sandwich, a charity activity that benefits uptown's Urban Ministry Center, Charlotte's largest soup kitchen.

"It was supposed to be a small, intimate affair, but it turned out to be a large, lovely disaster," said Yonto, smiling. He expected just a couple of dozen students would filter in during the afternoon and make a few sandwiches. "I think it was a huge success."

Members of 22 different graduate school-affiliated organizations came together, making 1,220 sandwiches in all for the soup kitchen.

UMC has long encouraged social clubs and other organizations in the community to participate in the activity. Development Director Liz Peralta said when groups make sandwiches, it allows them a financial break.

"It gives us a chance to save on our food costs," she said.

Since 1994, the soup kitchen has served lunch to about 350 to 400 people daily, 365 days a year.

"We have never failed to serve lunch," said Peralta, who notes neither ice nor snowstorms - even the burst water pipe that once collapsed part of the roof - have ever shut them down.

At the soup kitchen, the homeless are referred to as neighbors and are given hot soup, two sandwiches and fruit or salad - sometimes both - with each meal.

Over the years, book clubs, Scout groups, corporations, even the Ritz-Carlton have sent sandwiches to UMC.

"We steer people to make meat and cheese sandwiches, as a good source of protein," said Peralta. "Roast beef is a real treat. Egg salad, they love. Pimento cheese is not a big hit."

It's a good way for the community to connect to the city's homeless population, which UMC estimates at around 7,000.

"Issues like chronic homelessness are hard to understand," said Peralta, "but lunch, we all get."

Yonto chose UMC after learning about it from a friend.

"They're not inviting the homeless to come to their shelter. They're inviting their neighbors. They're treating them like regular people," he said. "That's why I like them."

"It's good to give back to the community,' said Ashish Panday, 25, an electrical engineering student who showed up to help out.

Logan Justice, 27, is working toward her Ph.D. in organizational science. "For me, in a graduate program, it's hard to always feel like you're contributing to the culture, the environment and society," she said. "It's providing us a way to do something that is highly needed in the current economic climate."

Justice and other graduate students stood at tables with heaps of meat in the center, building sandwiches until all the 87 loaves of bread, 21 pounds of cheese,9 pounds of bologna and 22 pounds each of turkey and ham were gone.

Yonto, who had kept the sandwich-makers updated by announcing a running sandwich tally throughout the afternoon, was met with cheers when he finally said, "Ladies and gentleman, we are out of meat!"