The phone rings. Fred Stegner, 67, picks it up, and is greeted by a man who has been sleeping night after night under a bridge in Snyder Park. “Can you drive to the park and talk to me in person, even if it is just for a few minutes?” the man asked Stegner.
“I figured he’d just want money, but I’ll go anyway,” Stegner recounted.
When Stegner arrived, the man told him that he had liver cancer and little time left to live. The man said he wasn’t interested in seeking medical help since he was at the stage of his life when he needed his independence. He said he hopes to eventually die alone under that bridge.
He did ask Stegner for one thing: not money, but rather, a wake at the Springfield Soup Kitchen when his time comes and the cancer takes his life. He said he has no family to give him a memorial service, so it was the people at the soup kitchen who he would like to memorialize him. Stegner assured him that it would be done.
Stegner and his late wife Carolyn opened the Springfield Soup Kitchen seven years ago. The Stegners cooked all the meals out of their home, and offered them to anyone who needed a warm meal every Monday and Wednesday evening. They served meals in the basement of St. Mary’s Catholic Church on West High Street in Springfield.
Just a year later, the church told Carolyn Stegner that the soup kitchen needed to move to a different location. She cashed out her IRA check, and used the money to buy an old bar, which Fred Stegner explained was, “inch-thick with grease on the floor, with an inch-thick of nicotine on the bar, and pipes that were shot.”
Inmates, who served various charities within the community during their jail time, cleaned out this building, located on West Main Street. With their help – and the help of other volunteers – the soup kitchen opened on the eve of Thanksgiving, Nov. 23, 2011.
“There must have been 100 people in line,” Stegner said. “One person started singing ‘Amazing Grace,’ and one by one…[all] 100 people had joined in.”
Since that first meal offered at their new location in 2011, the Springfield Soup Kitchen has increased from 100 hungry mouths to 200-250 yearning for a warm meal each night that it is open.
Springfield is the unhealthiest city in Ohio in which to live, according to a report by national financial website 247wallst.com. With 28 percent of children living below the poverty line, it is not surprising to find out that many are not receiving the proper nutrition they need to become healthy.
“It’s not much that I offer, but it’s everything to them,” Stegner said. “Some people are at the end of the rope, with no hope, and only despair.”
In fact, the soup kitchen does more than serve meals. It has turned into a “rescue center, a haven for those who need help,” Stegner said.
The soup kitchen hands out gloves, coats and blankets when the temperatures begin to drop, and when there are extremely low, with negative temperatures outside, the soup kitchen remains open 24/7. The fire marshal allows 12 cots to be brought in, and volunteers from the Red Cross assist throughout the night.
Despite all the difficult situations that come along with the soup kitchen, like blood stained doors and scattered needles from people shooting up in the restrooms, Stegner continues to return.
“I love the little children,” Stegner said. “I melt in how beautiful they are.” Not all will escape this cycle of poverty, he acknowledges, but he still loves talking to the children and “seeing the smiles on their faces when they get something to eat.”
Whether it’s picking up the donated bread from Panera every Sunday evening, serving the patrons or assisting with food preparation, there is never a hand that isn’t helpful for a successful evening at the soup kitchen. And though there are days, even now, when he thinks, “Why, why do I do this?” he also remembers the small gift that he can offer.
“When I get there, and I see the desperation, and what we are offering, it makes all the difference,” Stegner said.
At 5 p.m. every Monday and Wednesday, the patrons sit down in the restaurant-style soup kitchen, bow their heads in prayer and wait to be served. With two floors of patrons to be fed, Stegner really relies on all his volunteers (ideally 35) in order to make the soup kitchen run as smoothly as possible.
“God provides,” Stegner said. For the “Springfield Soup Kitchen is a happy story, not a sad one. The Lord brings joy to us all.
“Love, Soup Kitchen Guy.”