Imaginary Chats & Real Compassion

Soup kitchen offers unexpected opportunities

By Angela Pancella
Contributing Writer

Pat Wakim is executive director of the Over-the-Rhine Kitchen and the Walnut Hills Kitchen and Pantry. For about 18 years a gentleman named Anthony offered his assistance at the Over-the-Rhine Kitchen as volunteers and staff prepared noon meals at this, the oldest soup kitchen in Cincinnati.

“He passed away recently, God rest his soul,” Wakim says. “He was schizophrenic. He was often talking to several people at the same time. When volunteers came, I would explain to them, ‘Now, he’s going to talk to himself, but he’s harmless.’ ”

One day Wakim and Anthony were working by themselves, she says. As was his custom, Anthony was carrying on conversations. Wakim wasn’t listening all that closely until she heard him say, “She’s all right. She has a good heart.”

“Are you talking about me to somebody?” Wakim asked. He wouldn’t answer directly; he just laughed as Wakim mock-warned, “You better not be talking about me again”

Few situations are comparable in “if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry” value to overhearing someone talk about you to the voices in his head. But at places like the Over-the-Rhine Kitchen, these situations become the norm of day-to-day life, not the exception. And now there is an opportunity to step into this world: Wakim is on the lookout for a new manager at the kitchen; the current manager is retiring.

The Over-the-Rhine Kitchen is easy to spot on Vine Street across from St. Francis Seraph Church; it’s the building with cornucopias painted on the doors. Local author and professor Rev. Thomas Bokenkotter founded it in 1976 with the help of his mother Gertrude and with his sisters helping to cook the meals.

Inspired by a visit to Dorothy Day’s House of Hospitality in New York City, Bokenkotter came back asking, “Who is helping the poor in Cincinnati?” Once Over-the-Rhine Kitchen was established, Bokenkotter saw the great need that also existed in Walnut Hills and opened a kitchen and pantry there. He also founded Tom Geiger Guest House, now a number of houses offering transitional and permanent housing for battered and homeless women and children or homeless individuals and families with disabilities. Geiger, now deceased, was a volunteer in the earliest days who lived in the back room of the kitchen. The place is still often called “Tom’s Kitchen.”

“A staff of five runs three facilities,” Wakim says. “It takes all of us to make this happen, and the volunteers are the key to everything. We get volunteers when somebody gets a tug on their heart from above, and they can get involved with the meals, with painting a wall, with building something. … We’ve had so many young people. One young man wrote us the nicest letter. He said, ‘I came in because I was supposed to make amends. Nothing was right, and then I came in and learned that it’s not all about me. I enjoyed being tested to get things done quickly. I just learned to come out of myself.’ If the kids are lucky, they do get a lot out of it.”

As will the person who will be manager at the Over-the-Rhine Kitchen. The atmosphere is established at the door, where staff and volunteers welcome guests and tell them, “Thank you for coming.” Wakim, who is Lebanese, says the culture of hospitality in her heritage inspires her to welcome guests “just as if my mother was welcoming them into her home to eat.”

“The people are the focus,” she says. “We get a lot of elderly folks here. They’re just looking for a good smile. (They’ll tell us,) ‘Show your teeth!’ ”

The new manager will have to have “a heart for the poor,” Wakim says. “If you don’t, it’s not going to be worth it. But it’s the best job you could ever have.”

Applicants can contact Wakim at aposervice@juno.com or 513-961-1983.

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