Gratitude and friendship: A volunteer reports on serving migrants at Cuenca’s soup kitchen

May 29, 2018

Text and photos by Jeremiah Reardon

Cuenca is undergoing a migrant crisis with sharp rises in people fleeing from Venezuela and Colombia and many arrive at Sustainable Cuenca’s soup kitchen for a free lunch on Tuesdays, the day that I volunteer at Iglesia San Francisco. Primarily from Venezuela, migrants range in age from infancy to elderly. Just as my wife and I did five years ago they have new lives to create but with less rosy prospects.

At a recent lunch I greeted a table of women and children with backpacks. I was curious as to whether they were passing through town or safeguarding valuables. “Do you live in Cuenca?” “Yes, we just arrived yesterday,” a woman responded with a smile of satisfaction.

“Where did you come from?” I asked.

“Venezuela. And you? Are you from Venezuela?”

Venezuelan and Colombian migrants enjoy lunch at the Sustainable Cuenca soup kitchen.

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“No, from California,” I replied, stifling a chuckle at her innocent assumption that I had faced similar circumstances: risking all to escape uncertainty for foreign hospitality.

Finished with the meal, they stood and delightedly packed containers of food into a couple of the backpacks. Fortunately, we had leftovers to share. Later, our crew sat down to the same meal. Not so, on the previous Tuesday.

A last minute rush of twenty migrants gathered under the archway bordering the garden. We had only rice, bananas and rolls after the main serving of sixty meals. Our re-energized cook whipped up a new pot of soup. Thank goodness that young Venezuelans Osbad and Julven washed dishes after their meal while we served the new crowd.

Osbad, Julven and I chatted a bit at the sink. Julven, a pretty woman who rinsed while Osbad washed, held up a plastic glass. “What is the English word for this?”

“Glass,” I said, while drying one with my towel. “It’s the same word for the material in the window,” I said while rapping on a dirty window pane over the sink.

Friendship goes with the meal at lunch time.

Of the sixty to ninety people who arrive for a free meal at Iglesia San Francisco, I note a wide range of need. Older people exhibit low energy, focused on the meal at hand. When I place a bowl at their place, I receive quietly spoken thanks in exchange, “Gracias.”

Young couples and single parents play with their infant, toddler or child. Well-mannered youngsters in pastel-colored shirts are eager to assist me when I stop at their table.

Nicely dressed young adults engage in lighthearted banter. They want to show appreciation, offering to pitch in after the meal by clearing tables and washing dishes.

Older men in work clothes trade experiences in soft-spoken groups. I wonder how they’ll find work here in Cuenca. Perhaps they’ll join others who gather outdoors at the church across from the plaza under renovation, hoping to be selected by a boss looking for laborers.

I sympathize with people who sit by themselves, deep in thought. Their body language indicates weariness. At least they have a good meal to look forward to, I think, and, hopefully, conversation.

Sustainable Cuenca volunteers work in the kitchen.

A free lunch attracts occasional street vendors of sweet treats, unburdening themselves of their wares for the time it takes to enjoy our substantial offering of hot soup, meat entree and white rice.

Each place setting includes a glass of juice, a tablespoon, and a plate offering a bread roll and a banana. Kitchen sounds and smells make their way into the cool dining room. Volunteers respond to chores beckoning in both rooms. A helper notices a stack of dishes and cleans them under the faucet of the double-bowl stainless-steel sink streaming cold water. Other rinse and dry. Volunteers bear steaming bowls on trays to tables for six. A helper carefully removes a bowl at a time, dispensing to the upward turned face a customary mealtime greeting, “Buen provecho!”

Volunteers, numbering from eight to ten, change in cast from one shift to the next. We strive to serve the food quickly and create a pleasant atmosphere in the church hall. Bob Higgins, founder of Sustainable Cuenca, directs the work while greeting visitors. He and the cooks start work at six on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. More days will be added dependent upon financial assistance.

Volunteers begin preparing lunch early in the morning.

I am so impressed with the culinary skills of our Ecuadorian cooks, Carmita and Johanita. They command the room, standing over four pots on two three-burner stoves in the center of the kitchen. A variety of huge stainless-steel pots sit on top of blue gas flames.

The Soup Kitchen benefits from the generosity of donated food and supplies from concerned expats and Cuencanos. Bags of rice and juice mixes get dropped off. Meat dishes and sweet fried plantains arrive in restaurant-sized trays. I’m simply amazed with the abundance of these delectable dishes and the generosity of the people dropping them off with hardly a word. In the midst of getting out meals, appreciation is acknowledged with a greeting and a smile. Unseen, the basis of the Sustainable Cuenca’s service is cash donations, either direct to Higgins or via Sustainable Cuenca’s Paypal account (see details below).

The volunteers arrive during the hour before the meal is served on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Tuesdays, I work alongside old friends and new ones. Steve from Texas has owned a few restaurants. His specialty is meat preparation, some of which he does at home. Adrienne also volunteers at Hogar Esperanza, the shelter for AIDS patients and their families. Nancy sold commercial kitchen equipment before moving to Ecuador. I have worked in eight commercial kitchens during high school and college years. I recall people and experiences from those past jobs while appreciating the work ethic of the Soup Kitchen crew.

Other volunteers have included Karla who arrived from Venezuela three years ago. Her two-year-old Ecuadorian son awaited her at home with his father. Smith from Wisconsin is in town for a short stint. He and Mary who also hails from Wisconsin, made small talk about Milwaukee, getting acquainted while washing and drying dishes.

Rachel from Massachusetts speaks very good Spanish. I also met Esther and Helen, young German women who are visiting Cuenca. Mother Cathy and grown daughter Claudia from Cuenca arrived in the middle of lunch. They stayed to assist those who showed up after the principal meal.

Sustainable Cuenca contributes positively to the lives of the migrants in unplanned ways. I notice how they linger in groups under the garden archway, continuing conversations started during the meal. We expat volunteers are living proof to them how welcoming Cuenca is to extranjeros (foreigners). And we in turn pitch in at the Soup Kitchen to give back to our adopted home.

To become a volunteer at the Soup Kitchen, email Bob Higgins at: sustainablecuenca@gmail.com. And to contribute financially, send Higgins your donation via PayPal: rhspeaker@gmail.com.

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