By Laura Porter
WORCESTER – For 25 years, Rachel’s Table in Worcester has been feeding the hungry, proving the adage that even a small group can make an enormous difference.
In honor of the silver anniversary, the award-winning food security organization is throwing a party to thank its volunteers and supporters. It will be held on Tuesday, April 14 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Congregation Beth Israel in Worcester.
“It’s a small event, with speakers and wine and hors d’oeuvres,” says Carla Szymanski, who has been director for 15 of the program’s 25 years. “We don’t want to take money away from our mission, but we want to thank everybody who has been involved.”
The program’s principal task is to transfer perishable and non-perishable food donations from restaurants, grocery stores, bakeries and caterers to 35 recipients in Worcester, including food pantries, schools, soup kitchens, shelters, group homes, day programs and more.
A core of volunteers, driving their own cars, picks up food from donors and delivers it where it is needed. Other volunteers serve as dispatchers, helping to coordinate volunteer schedules and deliveries.
“A recipient might be a 10-person shelter or some of the large food pantries that feed hundreds of people,” Szymanski says.
The organization’s Children’s Milk Fund, begun in 1992, has grown exponentially until it now provides over 700 gallons of milk a week at a time when “milk is almost a luxury,” she says. It is the only regular source of donated milk in the area and the only fund of its kind.
The summer produce program supplements the summer meal program run by Friendly House Neighborhood Center, which provides breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks to school children who might not otherwise have adequate food during the summer.
Rachel’s Table gives fresh fruits and vegetables to accompany the meals. Last summer, their contribution amounted to $15,000. In all, 100,000 meals were served at nearly 40 sites throughout the city.
Another current program involves giving small packaged food items to Homeless Outreach Advocacy Program (HOAP).
“They are a small program that works with the homeless,” Szymanski says. “They find that people coming in for services are often hungry. They like to have something to hand out while they are waiting.”
Rachel’s Table is a program of the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts (JFCM). It was started by a group of women involved with Federation’s Women’s Division, who modeled it on a similar non-profit program in New York City.
“They were looking for a way to help the broader Worcester community and to do social justice,” says Szymanski. “It started small and grew through the collaboration of a number of different people who put it together from the ground up.”
Rachel’s Table has its own budget and staff and raises its own money. JFCM provides office space, insurance and its mailing list. All volunteers, as well as its recipients, come from a variety of religious backgrounds. Sponsors include a host of community foundations and corporations.
“Federation is so pleased to be the sponsoring body of Rachel’s Table,” says Howard Borer, executive director of JFCM. “It has become one of the preeminent hunger relief programs in Worcester County. It speaks to one of the most important tenets of Jewish life: Tikkun Olam, making the world a better place.”
Szymanski’s predecessor as director, Anne Sadick, “really established the organization and was the first paid person to get Rachel’s Table going,” she says. “She grew it for the eight years she was there.”
Today’s small part-time staff consists of Szymanski, who began her involvement 20 years ago as a dispatcher and driver, program coordinator Lissa Kasakoff, office assistant Therese Logan and a part-time accountant.
Kasakoff, who has been with the program since its inception, runs the day-to-day operations. Logan has also been on staff for many years, continuing in spite of her full-time job as a preschool teacher.
“I have a wonderful, very dedicated staff who never get any recognition,” says Szymanski.
In addition, over 70 volunteers are the lifeblood of the organization. Many are retired “because we need them during the day during the week,” she says, “but we also have families, college kids, moms.”
Some volunteers are in their 90s. Others have driven the same shift every week for years. There are groups of people who get together to prepare meals just for Rachel’s Table and pizzerias that make pizzas every week to donate.
“Our volunteers are the most wonderful people in the world,” she says. “During this terrible winter, even if we told them not to go out tomorrow, they still went out. They drive in the bad streets; they know the need.”
The 10-person board evaluates needs as they arise and tries to meet them, a daunting task given the devastating extent of food insecurity.
“The situation right now is as bad as I’ve ever seen it,” Szymanski says. “I have never gotten as many phone calls from people looking for help as I am now.”
The problem is multi-faceted, stemming in part from cuts to SNAP, or food stamps, the continued impact of the recession on people of low income, and the struggles of working people who have had their wages or hours slashed.
Families with two working parents, some with more than one job, are calling for help in anguish, unable to buy food. Seniors are in trouble, calling to say that they have no food in the house.
And just who is hungry might come as a surprise.
The towns surrounding Worcester “look like very nice middle-class towns, but they have hunger problems,” says Szymanski. Although Westborough appears affluent, it has been tagged by Project Bread as one of the highest pockets of need in the state.
“There are a lot of different aspects to needing food,” she says. “You never know how people are struggling, and it could happen to anyone.”
As Rachel’s Table celebrates its 25th anniversary, then, it is with gratitude for all that people have done and a continued appeal for help.
On April 14th, the speaker list – still in preparation – will include Howard Borer, Carla Szymanski and Pete Miller, a long-time volunteer and board member. Several local politicians are also likely to speak.
People who are attending include representatives from food recipient agencies such as Centro Las Americas, Maranda’s House, and the South Worcester Neighborhood Center, in addition to many volunteers and foundation representatives.
“It will be a very simple way not only of celebrating our anniversary but also to thank all of our volunteers, the fundraisers, the people who give us food, everyone who has really made Rachel’s Table possible for the past 25 years and hopefully spread the word to anyone who doesn’t know about us,” says Carla Szymanski.
Right now, they are in desperate need of more volunteer help as well as monetary contributions.
As for the next 25 years?
“My greatest hope is to lose my job and that Rachel’s Table is not there for our 50th anniversary.”
Rachel’s Table Teens to hold Hunger ArtsFest
SPRINGFIELD – The Teen Board of Rachel’s Table of Western Massachusetts will present a Hunger Awareness ArtsFest on Sunday, March 29 from 5 – 7 p.m. at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield.
The Basketball Hall of Fame provides a unique setting as the teens present music and dance performances, art exhibits and CAN-struction sculptures highlighting issues of local hunger. The event showcases the talents of local teens from more than 15 area schools.
Rachel’s Table is a project of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts & 22News/WWLP.com. Recognized as Outstanding Young Philanthropist Group of the Year by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, the Teen Board of Rachel’s Table works to alleviate childhood hunger and educate youth about hunger issues in our community.
Teen Education grants from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation have enabled the board to expand each year. The members have the opportunity to grow and learn to become the future philanthropic leaders of the community. There are now more than 70 teens represented from across Hampden County.
Last June, the teens raised more than $29,000 to alleviate childhood hunger and to educate youth about hunger at the second biennial Outrun Hunger. The teens also planned the Rachel’s Table Foodraiser raising more than $12,000 worth of food donations in one morning. They play a key role in the Backpack Program, organized by the Holyoke Public Schools, providing weekend food to homeless children. They volunteer at soup kitchens, go on gleaning trips, cook with residents of both Jewish Lifecare Services and Heritage Hall and donate the food they cook to our agencies, to name just a few more of their activities.
The Hunger Awareness ArtsFest is open to the public. Please bring a donation of non-perishable food. Refreshments will be served.