New London Breakfasts gets a new manager
New London — For more than a decade, the working poor, homeless and anyone else who is hungry have been able to get a hearty free breakfast weekday mornings at the big, granite church at the intersection of Union and State streets.
And that's still the plan.
But the church hosting the charitable meal program, called New London Breakfasts, will change.
This week, Engaging Heaven Church, which bought the former First Congregational Church building from the First Congregational congregation last September, began assuming responsibility for the program that has served more than 165,000 meals since its inception in 2005.
"It was just the right thing to do. It's time to pass the torch," said Kent Sistare, a lifelong member of First Congregational who has been a mainstay of the breakfast program since it started, about transitioning it to Engaging Heaven.
"My greatest mentor is Jesus, and he fed the multitudes," said Beloved Grace Carter, who will head up the breakfast ministry for Engaging Heaven. "Jesus fed the multitudes physically so they would be in a position to receive what he served them spiritually.
"It's kind of hard to get through to a person who is hungry," she added.
Carter, who is a graduate of Johnson & Wales University in Providence, where she was trained as a pastry chef, has been volunteering at the breakfast with the First Congregational members for the past year.
She is a member of Engaging Heaven, which now owns the circa-1850 church building and shares the space with First Congregational.
"Engaging Heaven has a lot of young people, a bigger congregation, and a lot of energy, and they're ready to step in, so the breakfast program will continue," said Catherine Zall, pastor of First Congregational. "I feel like we are not letting it go, but that we are letting somebody else take the lead."
The first New London Breakfasts meal was served in the church kitchen/dining room in December 2005, and volunteers are proud to say they've never stopped cooking.
"We've never missed, though the holidays, snowstorms," said Sistare, 77, who recently suffered a stroke, but who will continue to make the weekly trek to Moark Egg in Bozrah, the farm that donates 45 dozen eggs to New London Breakfasts each week.
The local restaurant Tony D's provides another 15 dozen eggs each week, and the menu is filled out with supplies and staples from the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center, where a volunteer goes "shopping" each week.
There are always hard boiled, scrambled and fried eggs, and oatmeal and juice, cereal, fruit, and beverages, and either bacon, sausage or ham, on the menu.
Some days feature home fries or hash browns, and on Mondays there's always French toast, and on Wednesdays, pancakes.
And in addition to the breakfasts, there's a luncheon served at the church the second Saturday of every month. The next one will be April 9.
"I think people who love the Lord, we are burdened with the need to help people, there's a need in us to meet needs in the community," said Engaging Heaven Pastor James Levesque, who started his church with five members in a downtown storefront in 2009, and now averages about 180 congregants at the church for Sunday services, plus hundreds more who watch online.
His congregation is drawn to helping others, he said.
"We're hoping to bless them and to provide them a warm meal in the morning," he said, adding, "Food is a good way to bless them."
According to First Congregational members, the breakfast program was started by their former pastor, David Hammett, and Russ Carmichael, and embraced by the congregation at the time.
Like Sistare, Peter Roberts has been there since the start.
"I remember that first day, we had maybe 24 people, and we were just awestruck by the number we were serving," he said.
Over the past decade, Roberts has been counting the numbers.
In recent years, he said the program has served about 15,000 breakfasts annually, but at its peak, when there were more people in need, it served as many as 22,000 a year.
"Fortunately, more people have jobs now, and homes, and the veterans' community is fully housed now," he said. "So there are fewer people, but there are still people who are in need of eating."
With the volunteer chefs and servers, and the food contributions, Roberts said he estimated a few years ago that the cost of the daily meal is about 56 cents a serving.
"We have never paid anyone to do anything," he said. "We have had hundreds of volunteers over the years, who give their time, crack the eggs, take out the trash, serve, they do whatever is needed."
A constant volunteer presence has been Coast Guard Academy cadets, who like the citizen volunteers, arrive early.
Carter gets in about 5 a.m. to turn on the lights, start the grill and oven, and begin the preparations. Breakfast is served Monday to Friday, at 7 a.m.
"I used to get up 3:30 in the morning," said Sistare. "That was the biggest hurdle. From there it was all down hill."
First Congregational members will still pitch in, but the responsibility for the breakfasts will be on Engaging Heaven.
"It's a relief to me, and everyone else, that we have a younger, viable group of people who will step in," Roberts said. "It doesn't matter who is calling the shots in the kitchen, it matters that people are getting fed in downtown New London."
"We want to continue this great legacy of helping our community," said Carter, who is 65 and has worked in food services all of her life. "I want to honor Kent Sistare and Peter Roberts and James Stidfole, I want to honor them for keeping this program together for so long. I'm grateful, and honored to be passed the baton."
To make a donation
Send donations to New London Breakfasts, care of Engaging Heaven Church, P.O. Box 2049, New London, CT 06320.
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