Karine Wilkinson looks forward to the free lunches offered each weekday at Helping Hands of St. Louis.
"We call it our 'out to eat.' ... I like it. There's a lot of nice people here," Ms. Wilkinson said of the meals at the East Toledo soup kitchen.
Wearing a tank top and jeans, with piercings in each eyebrow and her hair in long pigtails, Ms. Wilkinson, 43, was enjoying a hot lunch this week that included stew meat, meatballs with sauce, chicken, potatoes, fruit salad, regular salad, and a paper plate full of cookies or cake for dessert.
"They take care of people here, don't they, Uncle Frank?" Ms. Wilkinson asked the man beside her.
"It's the best soup kitchen in the city," replied Frank Blaze, 65. "Got the best food. Got the best cooks. They always have desserts. And they let you have seconds!"
Mr. Blaze and Ms. Wilkinson were among the hundreds of people who ate lunch this week in the Sixth Street center's air-conditioned basement.
Feeding the hungry and poor is something Helping Hands of St. Louis has been doing for decades. The center will mark its 30th anniversary with a celebration Saturday at the St. Joseph Parish in Maumee.
Everyone is welcome at St. Louis, which has provided a total of 1.5 million meals since it was founded by the Rev. Robert Armstrong, then pastor of St. Louis Catholic Parish, and parishioners.
"We ask no questions. Everyone who comes through the door eats," said Paul Cook, director.
He said people are encouraged to bring their families, and children are always served first. "Kids rule down here!" he said.
About 80 percent of the people who come to St. Louis are "working poor," holding at least part-time jobs but with no money left over after rent and utilities, Mr. Cook said.
On a typical day, the kitchen serves at least 175 people and as many as 500, he said.
The soup kitchen, which is a ministry of Catholic Charities of the Toledo Catholic Diocese, served 66,496 meals last year, offering lunch five days a week and breakfast three days a week. Its food pantry also gave away 2,173 bags full of groceries.
"This is needed now more than ever," said Toledo City Councilman Mike Craig, who stopped at the kitchen for its 30th anniversary. City council issued a proclamation Tuesday honoring St. Louis.
Volunteers pitch in for kitchen and dining room duty, with 30 organizations serving in regular rotation, according to Vanessa Garrett, kitchen and volunteer coordinator. On a recent weekday, a dozen members of Blessed John XXIII Parish in Perrysburg cooked and served lunch.
St. Louis Catholic Parish was closed by the Toledo diocese in 2005 but that didn't end Helping Hands of St. Louis' mission. The center has even expanded in recent years with the food pantry, hot showers, and a free clothing store.
Visitors to the clothing center, which has served 2,600 people since it opened in July, 2011, can choose from racks and shelves laden with carefully sorted clothing and shoes, under the watchful gaze of a large mural of Jesus. They fill out information cards and are limited to one visit every three months, unless there's an emergency, and are asked to volunteer at the center, according to co-directors Joan Schroeder and Anita Plantz.
Helping Hands of St. Louis was getting a helping hand this week from dozens of teenagers who are on a mission to Toledo with Catholic HEART Workcamp. They pay $350 each to come here from around the country and do community service work. Teams of the young volunteers from Illinois and Iowa helped sort clothes, plant flowers, build shelves, and pour cement at St. Louis.
Tickets to Saturday's 30th anniversary celebration, set for 6:30 p.m. in the St. Joseph Parish Community Center, 112 W. Broadway, Maumee, are $15. For information or to register, call the center at 419-691-0613 or send an email to email@example.com.