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I used to eat at soup kitchens to survive. Now as a volunteer, I see it from the other side.

Most people who served me won’t ever hear my words of appreciation. But with this, I’m starting to pay them back.

Kirsten Levitt, Stone Soup executive chef and executive director, with volunteer Ed Kressy in the Stone Soup kitchen. (Kate Hunter)
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The hardest Thanksgiving dinner I ever ate was in jail. I was a victim of my own poor choices which led to a devastating meth addiction. Unfortunately, I failed to learn from my mistakes. Upon release, I spent three more years addicted.

To survive, I often depended upon the kindness of strangers who volunteered in soup kitchens. They wore warm expressions as they spooned food into bowls I held in my outstretched, trembling hands.

This Thanksgiving, I’m 14 years clean from meth. To honor those volunteers who fed me, I volunteered to help the food-insecure who show up at Stone Soup Café in Greenfield, Mass.

Stone Soup doesn’t call itself a soup kitchen, it’s a pay-what-you-can restaurant. Its beginnings came in 2010 when actor Jeff Bridges partnered with Bernie Glassman, founder of Zen Peacemakers, to open the Let All Eat Café, a place where each week, 20 to 30 people could catch a ride to a farm in Montague, Mass. to share a community meal. Glassman used to put a dollar bill under diners’ place mats, and tell them they could take the money or leave it as a donation. In 2011, Glassman realized that to serve a larger community, the cafe would need to move locations.

He brought in Kirsten Levitt, who co-founded the current Stone Soup in Greenfield, about 10 miles from the original location.

“I was once a poor single mother, living on the margins,” said Levitt, explaining how poorly people get treated living on those margins. She began volunteering for Stone Soup, where she had a knack for creating culinary visions from scratch, stirring up earthy blends of nutritious, delicious fare. She soon became the executive chef and executive director.

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At first, the Greenfield Café offered a sit-down hot luncheon every Saturday, when volunteers transformed an empty carriage hall into a beautifully decorated dining room. They set tables with silverware, centerpieces and white tablecloths. Volunteers shared those tables with their neighbors who were homeless, had histories of addiction and incarceration.

“Everyone was welcome,” said Levitt. “There was no delineation between those serving, and those being served. We sat down together.”

Togetherness at tables created networks, and jobs and housing opportunities came as a result. Stone Soup evolved to offer a culinary skills training program. Volunteers who came out of jail and recovery programs chopped vegetables and set tables, and many learned to cook in Stone Soup’s kitchen.

“I provided them job references,” said Levitt, of her trainees. “Their work at Stone Soup gave them credibility. Things they might never have had before.”

The establishment grew to serving to up to 200 meals each weekend. Volunteers and supporters included politicians, teachers and students from nearby University of Massachusetts, Smith College and Deerfield Academy.

Then came the pandemic.

When social distancing eliminated sit-down meals, the cafe began providing to-go offerings. There was an online system for meal orders and an all-volunteer delivery service for people who couldn’t pick up the food. A pay-it-forward campaign allowed people to sponsor meals for their neighbors.

Soon, the cafe was serving 500 meals every Saturday and drawing about 50 volunteers. Levitt estimates that at least half of those volunteers had a time in their lives when they couldn’t afford their own food.

One Saturday before Thanksgiving, I was part of that half.

I walked into the cafe that operates out of All Souls’ Church, a beautiful stone structure that resembles a medieval castle. Across the street is the Franklin County Justice Center, a building that seemed familiar, as I’ve spent time in places like that. The Thanksgiving meal I ate behind bars and the time I’d been stripped naked and held in a padded cell, suffering from meth psychosis — in both cases, food had been a motivating factor behind my crimes: shoplifting from a supermarket, breaking into a relative’s home to eat.

Fortunately, I quit meth for good in October 2007. Soon after, I received an invitation to a potluck Thanksgiving dinner in a sober home. Of course, the food there was far better than the processed gray turkey, watery gravy and instant mashed potatoes of the corrections system. But there was something more.

It was the people.

In my early days of recovery, as I struggled to stay free from meth and hold down a job, the people made the difference. Soup kitchens — the free food they provided — had kept my body alive. But human beings at places like the sober house transformed my spirit.

I was a meth addict and a thief. Today, I’m being honored by the FBI.

Stone Soup transforms many others with stories similar to mine.

Mike McCaffrey volunteered for Stone Soup while incarcerated. “Kirsten picked me up from jail every Saturday,” he said. She brought him to volunteer at the cafe as part of a prerelease program that he says helped him gain self-worth. Today, following 17 years of incarceration, he’s working, saving money and living in a sober house. He hopes to open a business one day.

“I caused wreckage to the community by not being a good citizen,” said McCaffrey, adding that he now makes better choices. “I’m staying clean, learning new behaviors.”

He said a lot of people who eat at the cafe come back later and volunteer. “Single moms, people on food stamps, the homeless, men and women in recovery homes,” he said.

He described how some people often look down on such individuals. “Kirsten’s not like that,” he said. “Kirsten wants to know, what can she do to help?”

Taaniel Herberger-Brown is a recipient of such help. As a high school football player, Herberger-Brown received interest letters from Ivy League schools. He delayed college and instead joined the Navy, following a similar path as his grandfather, Wesley. A. Brown, who in 1949, became the first Black person to graduate from the Naval Academy at Annapolis.

Despite a promising career as a submariner, Herberger-Brown developed problems with alcohol. He found he couldn’t drink safely around others, so he retreated to a cabin in the woods to drink. Still, at various times he said he smashed his hand through a window, kicked in his neighbor’s door and had run-ins with the law.

Herberger-Brown found Stone Soup through the probation department. His experience volunteering in that kitchen helped him turn his life around. “It’s a safe place,” he said of the cafe. “When I’m there, I can rewind my brain. It’s like I’m in college again. I can talk about things that make me happy.”

As he works to help his food-insecure neighbors, he has rediscovered much more that he has to give society. He’s working toward his associate’s degree in criminal justice. He plans to become a reentry coordinator, helping other justice-involved individuals find their way to sober homes and service communities.

As I was helped to do.

When my volunteer shift began, I ladled warm apple cubes into vats, mashed potatoes with avocado oil and parsley and mixed salad greens with organic dried cranberries. As aromas of garlic braised kale and homestyle turkey meatloaf wafted through the kitchen, workers danced to oldies tunes blaring from the radio.

My next task was assembling to-go meal boxes, and I have to admit, the motions can be tedious. But the energy from the other volunteers quickly made me think not of the boxes I was assembling, but of the people who would be opening them. I wanted them to have feelings of hope and self-worth as they tucked into a meal prepared for them with love. I wanted them to heal.

That’s what others had done for me. They saved my life; they healed me. There in those meal boxes, I found a renewed sense of gratitude for the people who helped me.

Most people who served me in the soup kitchens and sober homes won’t ever hear words of appreciation from me. But with places like Stone Soup, I’m able to do something to start to pay them back, by bettering the lives of others. And in the process, bettering my own life.

Read more:

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Many Make-A-Wish kids ask for a vacation. This teen asked to feed the homeless.

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