Outside the Cubicle: Katherine Smith of Half-Moon Outfitters helps to feed the homeless in Charleston, S.C.

While plenty of people volunteer at soup kitchens during the holidays, one Half-Moon Outfitters employee dedicates her weekday mornings at least twice a month to serve lunch at Crisis Ministries in Charleston, S.C.
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To further a long-standing goal at SNEWS® to build our community through communication, we are launching a new column called Outside the Cubicle to highlight the extraordinary, awe-inspiring or just plain wonderful things those in the industry do when outside of the work environment (click here to read about its launch). It will give us a chance to write about all the “oh wow” things we hear people did, do or accomplished that have utterly nothing to do with work. Through our new column, we will help introduce our community to the lives and activities of those in it who might otherwise go unnoticed. The stories may inspire or entertain, or make you laugh, look at somebody differently or prompt you to wonder how they found the time. From warehouse floor and sales floor to executive lounge or road-warrior sales rep, we will be looking for great stories and great people to profile. Is it you? Your boss? Your colleague? Your stories are important since they give life, meaning and humanity to everything we do each day. Tell us who should be next. Email us at OutsidetheCubicle@snewsnet.com or call 530-268-8295.

When the holidays roll around, there’s no shortage of volunteers lining up to serve food at the Crisis Ministries homeless shelter and soup kitchen in Charleston, S.C. In fact, you have to reserve your spot in advance to serve on Christmas Day.

“Say you want to do Christmas in 2011. You would have to let us know in 2010 to lock you in,” said Wanda Price, assistant food service director for Crisis Ministries (www.charlestonhomeless.org). “Some people want to do just holidays, and that’s well and good, but we do tell them, ‘Hey, we’ve got 364 other days to serve.’”

To feed people the rest of the year, the soup kitchen relies on volunteers such as Katherine Smith, creative director for Half-Moon Outfitters, an outdoor specialty store chain based in South Carolina. Since 2007, Katherine and her husband Hayden, a student and part-time employee at Half-Moon, have taken time out of their busy schedules to work the lunch shift at Crisis Ministries twice a month, preparing and serving food to the poor and homeless people of Charleston.

“I know it sounds cliché, but it makes me feel like I’m giving something back,” Smith told SNEWS®. While the volunteer work strengthens her ties to the community, it also gives her a greater understanding of the challenges facing those less fortunate, particularly during the recession.

A life of service

The ideas of sacrifice and service were ingrained in Smith at a young age. A native of Charlotte, N.C., she grew up in a family of 10 children, six of whom were adopted. Her parents not only adopted kids, but they also served as foster parents to others. “We had over 50 foster kids in our house through the years, so it definitely influenced me to try to help other people,” she said.

In 2007, Smith was considering various types of volunteer work in Charleston, and she asked her husband about the possibility of working at Crisis Ministries. Hayden was familiar with the organization and had volunteered there because his father had served as its executive director for two years. “He had worked there before, and really loved it,” said Katherine. The couple also realized that it would be more financially feasible to dedicate some of their time, rather than donating money to a charity. “Hayden is a student, so it’s hard for us to promise dollar amounts,” said Katherine.

For the weekday lunch service, Katherine arrives at Crisis Ministries around 8 a.m., prepares and cooks food until about 11 a.m., and then helps a team serve from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. She then goes into work around 1 p.m.

Katherine said she’s thankful that her boss, Beezer Molten, owner of Half-Moon Outfitters, has supported her volunteer work from the get-go.

“He has been really awesome about it,” said Smith, “When I decided I wanted to do it, I approached him and said it was important to me and he said, ‘Amazing. Go for it.’”

Knowing Molten, and knowing the mindset of people in the outdoor industry, she wasn’t really surprised by his reaction. “Something cool about the outdoor industry is that there’s generally this giving back mentality,” Smith said. “It’s generally through things like Surfrider Foundation, trail clean-ups or things like that. But it’s interesting that a lot of outdoor people think outside of themselves to give back.”

Breaking down stereotypes

Smith admits she was “terrified” the first time her husband took her to volunteer at Crisis Ministries in 2007. “You don’t know what to expect. You’re wondering how you’re going to react with the customers,” she said.

With its old, donated appliances, the kitchen at the shelter was certainly unfamiliar territory for her. “I have worked in a restaurant kitchen before where everything is shiny and new, and you wouldn’t dare serve an apple with a bruise on it. Here, part of the job is cutting bruises off of apples and cutting them up to make fruit salad,” she said.

Though the soup kitchen work was a big departure from her previous restaurant experiences, she quickly felt at ease. “There’s great camaraderie with the people who work there because everyone has a similar mentality and wants to give back somehow,” she said.

But she has been most surprised by how comfortable she feels with the people coming through the soup kitchen line. “For the most part, it’s kind people who are always gracious and say, ‘Thank you, thank you for being here. How are you doing today?’ It helps, because you can go in feeling woe-is-me sometimes, and you walk out with a different attitude,” she said.

Smith said that people who have not volunteered at a shelter have a lot of misconceptions about the types of people there. “There are a lot of stereotypes, where people think the people are all drug addicts, but that’s not the case at all,” she said. “Some of them have some kind of mental illness that has caused them to not be able to keep a job or a home.”

There’s the man named George, a jolly fellow who always asks as he comes through the line, “Do you guys need any help today? Do you have a job?” In a friendly tone, Katherine and the other workers reply, “No, George, no jobs today.”

“Well, if you know anyone with a job, I’ll work for him,” George always replies.

The unfortunate truth about this exchange is that Katherine and the other workers know that George really isn’t capable of holding down a job due to his mental illness. Still, they help him in any way they can, and for a brief period of time gave George the task of keeping the parking lot clean.

While it might not seem surprising to see people with mental disabilities in the soup kitchen line, Katherine said that she’s started seeing people you just wouldn’t expect there. “Last week, there was a man in a nice jacket, button-down shirt and khaki pants,” she said. “He was probably in his mid-40s, handsome, and he looked put together so well.” She said the man hung his head as he walked through the line and was obviously embarrassed. “I caught his eye and smiled, but it was uncomfortable for sure. He would barely make eye contact,” she said. “There are people who have been there enough that they’re cheerful, but there are people who are embarrassed. You really don’t know anybody’s story.”

All walks of life

Price said that since the recession has taken hold she has definitely seen more displaced families entering the shelter, as well as more people coming through the soup kitchen, which is open to the public during the lunch hours.

All of the shelter’s 84 beds are filled, and they have even had to make provisions for an overflow of people. At the beginning of each month, the kitchen serves 135 to 155 people a day, said Price. “During the middle to the end of the month, we can go as high as 250,” she said. “A lot of people receive checks at the beginning of the month, whether it’s medical disability or a retirement check, or military -- we have a lot, a lot of veterans that come through. When the money runs out, they come back.”

Price emphasized that there is no set demographic of people who stay in the shelter or get their meals from the kitchen. “Homelessness has no race,” she said. “And we have all types of people; all ages and all religions.”

Some come in worn-out clothing, while others maintain a neat appearance. “Some do their part to look clean,” said Price. “They have that pride and press their clothes every morning. You would never know they were homeless unless you followed them here. Others have given up on themselves and life.

“We have women and children; some are single dads,” said Price, adding that people come from all walks of life and have suffered a wide range of unfortunate circumstances. “One lady was hit by a car while jogging in Isle of Palms (an upscale area), and her out of pocket expenses were so high she lost everything, and she wound up in the shelter.”

A greater appreciation

Living on one of South Carolina’s barrier islands, it would be easy for Katherine and Hayden to put the less fortunate people of Charleston out of sight and out of mind. But they said that their volunteer work has made them more mindful of the area’s social problems and the people working to address homelessness.

“It puts you in contact with the community in general,” said Hayden. “It’s easy to isolate yourself, going to work, coming home, and staying in a closed circle of peers and friends. But this lets us meet a diverse group of people who volunteer, and it puts you in contact with the people who come through the line as well.”

“The biggest lesson is compassion, realizing that people are people,” said Katherine. “I’m not saying I’ve never been guilty of stereotyping, but it allows you to appreciate people who are different from yourself. Just because you’re poor or have a fancy job, or no job at all, we all are people, and all have the same wants and needs and desires.”

Their time at Crisis Ministries has had another interesting effect as well. “Since she’s started volunteering, I think Katherine has been more fulfilled in a lot of things she enjoys, even being outdoors,” said Hayden. He and Katherine love to surf, and when they are sitting on their boards in the Atlantic waiting for a set to roll in, Katherine will comment on how calm and vibrant the surroundings are.

Her appreciation of the ocean runs deeper these days, especially knowing that life is a struggle for so many people. She thinks about the people who keep coming through the soup kitchen line week after week, month after month. While she hopes that these people will escape their trap, she knows that for many the future is cloudy at best.

Price described a baby who arrived at the shelter just two weeks after he was born. “He was a teeny, tiny thing,” she said. And the boy is still there, now seven months old.

--Marcus Woolf

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