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Stirring the pot: 2,000 volunteers, $1.4-million budget

The mission: to annually serve 60,000 meals and provide shelter for 1,000 homeless people. The requirement: 2,000 volunteers. The budget: $1.4 million.

Stewpot Community Services, a nonprofit organization that started as a simple soup kitchen, has adeptly met that challenge, to provide food and assistance to Jackson’s poor and homeless.

Today, Stewpot offers 17 programs, including homeless shelters, clothing, counseling and children’s programs. Of its $1.4-million budget, individuals and businesses donate 52%; 18% is derived from grants; 15% comes from 60 area congregations; and 11% is raised from charity events. Expenses continue to escalate; liability insurance alone costs about $60,000 per year.

“This time of year is always tight for us, as it is for so many agencies, because the rhythm of life changes in the summer,” said Jill Barnes, second-in-command at Stewpot. “However, we can tell that people are doing better financially because we’re doing better.”

In 1981, seven churches — Calvary Baptist, Capitol Street Methodist, Central Presbyterian, Galloway United Methodist, St. Andrew’s Episcopal, St. Peters’ Catholic and St. James Episcopal — crossed denominational lines to establish Stewpot.

The soup kitchen was an instant success, providing lunches to anyone — no questions asked — seven days a week. Last year, more than 7,000 volunteers served over 60,000 meals, or between 150 and 200 people daily. Volunteers John Lewis and Robert Downs established the Meals on Wheels program after noticing the elderly and disabled had great difficulty traveling to the Community Kitchen. Daily, about 50 meals are delivered to area shut-ins.

In 1982, a Food Pantry was established to provide a four-day emergency supply of food to carefully screened applicants. Area churches stock the pantry, which is open 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on weekdays and benefits more than 1,000 people every month. More than 100,000 cans of food are donated each year. “We get a lot of calls from people who are looking to supplement what little food they have,” said Barnes.

During the holiday season, the Food Pantry distributes about 600 turkeys to needy families. Volunteer Caroline Ellender suggested the creation of Stewpot’s Community Garden, which was established in 2000 to provide fruits and vegetables to the Community Kitchen and Food Pantry. On Feb. 4, 2002, to service hungry people in the Canton area, Madison County Stewpot opened a Community Kitchen in the St. Paul AME Zion Church.

In 1993, Stewpot established the Sims House, a 90-day transitional shelter that annually serves more than 60 homeless women and children. Every month, an average of 20 mothers and children reside at the Sims House, which also offers parenting classes, counseling services, day care for children, Bible study, nutrition classes, budgeting seminars, career development and computer training classes.

Every month, Stewpot’s Clothing Closet, stocked with clothing donated by area residents, serves more than 100 needy people.

In 1987, Stewpot established the Billy Brumfield House, a converted fire station located at 1244 South Gallatin Street that became the organization’s first shelter for homeless men. Last year, more than 700 men stayed at the facility, which offers an alcohol and drug rehabilitation program, a transitional work program and temporary housing for the disabled. Bus passes, breakfast, shower facilities, a bed and an evening meal are provided daily.

Matt’s House, named for former executive director Matt Devenney, was established in 1992 as an emergency overnight shelter that serves 300 women and children each year and “is almost constantly full,” said Barnes.

In 1999, the Mississippi Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) donated Stewpot’s main Capitol Street campus. The Central Urban Ministry Center, located at 1100 West Capitol Street in the building formerly occupied by Central Presbyterian Church, houses Stewpot’s Community Kitchen, Food Pantry, Virginia’s Playhouse, Clothing Closet, Community Health Clinic, Legal Clinic, Chapel, Counseling Ministries and Stewpot offices. Inter-faith worship services are held weekdays at 11:30 a.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. at the Stewpot Chapel. Eucharist is celebrated every Thursday at 8:30 a.m.

“Stewpot is a home-grown ministry, and the amount of community support we receive — not only financially, but also emotionally and spiritually — is amazing,” said Barnes. “On a given day, we’ll have about 50 or 70 volunteers working all 17 programs. Of those, about half come on a regular basis, either weekly or monthly.”

During the weekday lunch hour, lawyers from Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project provide gratis legal counseling for the poor, elderly and disabled. In partnership with the Central Urban Ministry Center, St. Dominic’s Health Services operates a Community Health Clinic, providing free primary medical care to low-income and homeless families.

Last year, more than 300 children participated in Stewpot’s Neighborhood Children’s Program summer camp and school year ministries, which includes tutoring services and self-esteem building workshops. Virginia McKinney inspired Virginia’s Playhouse, which provides activities ranging from art therapy to poetry workshops to bingo games for the elderly and mentally disabled.

Through Stewpot’s Bratton Street Project — its first community redevelopment program — abandoned and dilapidated houses are renovated and sold to low-income families. Since its inception, 15 houses have been completed and three houses are being renovated.

Stewpot’s fundraising programs have become social events for Jackson’s movers and shakers. Every year, more than 30 restaurants, congregations and professional organizations set up camp at One Jackson Place in downtown Jackson to vie for the coveted title of Best Red Beans Recipe in Trustmark’s Red Beans and Rice Festival. Coinciding with Halloween, participants also compete for Best Dressed Booth and Best Costume prizes. With 100% of the proceeds benefiting Stewpot, nearly 10,000 people attend the festival, which features musicians such as the Subdudes and Eddie Cotton. Last year, more than 300 gallons of red beans were consumed and $65,000 was raised.

“Just a few years ago, we made $40,000, so you can see how much the program has grown,” said Barnes.

Approximately 700 people pay $45 in advance or $50 at the door to attend Stewpot’s Taste of Mississippi fundraising event, now in its second decade. Traditionally held every spring on the Monday before Daylight Savings Time begins, it features more than 40 chefs and restaurateurs from fine dining establishments who compete for Best Food prizes. A sampling of menu items: City Grocery’s smoked shrimp bouchee, Nick’s grilled quail with shiitake mushrooms, Keegan’s blackened shrimp with blue cheese grits and Schimmel’s triple chocolate cheesecake. The event also features a live auction, with prizes such as a Seabourn cruise, a round-trip flight for five on a corporate jet and dinner for eight prepared by local chefs. A silent auction features Mississippi art, dinner and fun merchandise.

“Last year, we broke away from Taste of the Nation to Taste of Mississippi, so more money could stay here,” said Barnes. “In 2003, we raised $72,000. This year, we raised $81,000, so we’re already seeing a significant difference.”

Stewpot has undergone several leadership changes in the last few years. Longtime executive director Luther Ott resigned two years ago to preside over an Episcopal congregation in Clinton. Unfortunately, George Hewes, his replacement, died in July after complications from a fall. Stewpot named COO Episcopal Reverend Frank Spencer, who recently completed a mission trip to the mountains of Honduras, to lead the organization.

“I’m very honored that the board has selected me to lead this wonderful ministry,” said Spencer. “I’m grateful for the vision that started it 24 years ago and to the people who have sustained it and grown it to this point. I look forward to helping alleviate the needs of the inner city into the future.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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