By the time the 650th person came through line at The Beacon on Monday afternoon, it was 2 p.m. The spaghetti and meatballs—by far the most popular entree choice at lunch that day—had just run out a dozen people earlier, but there was still just enough pork stew left. The sweet corn was also gone, as were the collard greens and the okra with tomatoes, but those had been replaced by Cajun-stewed squash and zucchini halfway through service. And as with any cafeteria line, there were still plenty of green beans remaining in a shallow steam tray.
Mike Puccio's timing and estimation are incredible, considering that the number of Houstonians—homeless, hungry, or simply in need of a hot meal that day—The Beacon serves can fluctuate wildly, between 400 and 700 depending on a multitude of factors. Puccio and his team, which is made up entirely of volunteers, prep much of the food beforehand and keep cooking throughout the entire lunch service to make sure every mouth is fed.
"It's pretty light at the beginning of the month," said Puccio, operations director for The Beacon Day Center, as we sat down in his office at the end of the three-hour lunch shift. That's when most people who use The Beacon's services have a fresh supply of food stamps and other government benefits to help them out. "It gets heavier towards the end of the month," Puccio said. That's when the big crowds hit.
Halfway through lunch service, one woman with golden-gray hair under a knit hat told me as I scooped a portion of pork stew onto her molded plastic lunch tray: "I feel uncomfortable here." It wasn't the atmosphere, she said, nor the food—the food at The Beacon is actually quite good—but the sheer act of asking for help. "My stamps just ran out," she said. "I hate having to do this."
Asking for help is never easy, but The Beacon manages to distill some dignity into its daily routine regardless. People in need of a hot meal line up before the cafeteria opens at 11 a.m. There's plenty of hot coffee (with milk and sugar) to warm up cold hands while you wait. Tables and chairs are scattered throughout a light-filled room that resembles a high school cafeteria.
The Beacon, a charitable ministry within Christ Church Cathedral, offers other services too, both through the Day Center and its other ministries: Brigid’s Hope and the Cathedral Justice Project. At the Day Center, you can get your laundry washed, dried, and folded, take a hot shower, or receive help finding housing, employment, or other services. In 2012 alone, the Day Center served 101,483 hot meals.
And all of this is down to volunteer work, which does everything from cook food to wash clothes to man the cafeteria lines to ensure everything moves swiftly when The Beacon serves lunch, Friday through Monday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. And when it's spaghetti and meatballs day, that line moves extra fast—no one wants to miss out on the favorite entree. I kept trying to encourage people to try the pork stew as the spaghetti supplies dwindled, dipping my ladle into the steam tray and bringing up thick hunks of pork, Russet potatoes, carrots, green beans, peas, and corn. "That's a hard sell," laughed one man. "I'll take that spaghetti and meatballs, please."
"There's always a run on spaghetti," chuckled Ann, one of the regular volunteers. "Everyone wants spaghetti." Whether it was the tall, jovial man with a booming voice and a nametag that read "Cowboy" (other nametags included "Prophet" and "Apostle") or the cute young couple who held hands as they went through line—the woman explaining to me that she was letting her boyfriend pick all the vegetables for their two trays, because "he loves his veggies"—everyone wanted the spaghetti.
"This is grassfed beef that was donated us to by a rancher in Fulshear," Puccio noted, as he brought over tray after tray of the stuff throughout the course of lunch. The spaghetti and meatballs are par for the course here, where The Beacon makes nearly everything from scratch—from salad dressings and soups to the fresh-baked bread and cookies that come with every meal.
And although much of the volunteer work in the kitchen is courtesy of the very people The Beacon helps—folks who get extra food in exchange for their time—the rest of the ministry is in constant need of other volunteers, whether in the laundry room or in the kitchen.
This past Monday, a group of housewives from Sienna Plantation was hard at work in the laundry, washing and folding. In the kitchen, my friend Paula Murphy had gathered a few of her buddies to come work on their lunch hour. We were exhausted but happy by the end of those three short hours, which had seemed to pass like only a couple of minutes, bolstered by the smiles on the other side of the serving line and the sweat of a few hours of good work.
The Beacon is currently seeking volunteers, whether once a week or once a month—you can schedule the time at your convenience. This time of year, there's no better way to give thanks for what you have in your life than by giving back.