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Volunteers discover a lot more than homeless need help

JAY SOWERS / THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Paul McNeal, right, talks about the joy he finds in volunteering Thursday afternoon at the Natchez Stewpot kitchen, while fellow volunteers Sandra Johnson, center, and Kirk Johnson listen.
JAY SOWERS / THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Paul McNeal, right, talks about the joy he finds in volunteering Thursday afternoon at the Natchez Stewpot kitchen, while fellow volunteers Sandra Johnson, center, and Kirk Johnson listen.

NATCHEZ — The Natchez Stewpot volunteers Sandra Johnson, Paul McNeal and Kirk Johnson said the stewpot’s mission is to help the community and feed the hungry, but what the trio found out is a lot more than homeless people in the community need help.

The trio said they make 350 to 450 plates a day for locals in the area, and at first it surprised them how many of the recipients aren’t necessarily homeless.

“You’d be surprised at the nurses, teachers and people who come to get food on the daily,” Sandra said. “A lot of parents bring their children here when they go to work so they can get a plate to eat while they’re working.”

Along with feeding working class individuals, they send plates of food to public schools in Jackson that are in need because of budget cuts.

Sandra admitted she wasn’t aware of the magnitude of service needed at the stewpot, but she said she is happy she started volunteering 10 years ago.

“I do everything,” Sandra said. “The cooking, mopping, food preparation and things like that. It’s fun and I get along with everybody.”

McNeal said he was once a regular recipient at the stewpot, so he understands the impact the soup kitchen Has on people’s lives.

Once he got on his feet, stewpot director Johnnie Davis recruited him to come volunteer, and he hasn’t turned his back since.

“(Davis) challenged me to come in and volunteer and I liked it, it made a difference in my life,” McNeal said.

McNeal said his love for cooking is utilized well in his time at the stewpot, and he said he’s learned a lot more about cooking in his tenure.

“I’ve cooked before I came up here, and there’s things that I didn’t know about cooking that (Davis) took the time to teach me,” McNeal said. “(Davis) looks at cooking a whole different way.”

With McNeal and several others stirring the spoon in the kitchen, McNeal said they have done a great job making sure the stewpot doesn’t follow stereotypes.

“We cook a lot of food on a large scale, but the food is actually good,” McNeal said. “It’s not like most soup kitchens that just throw food together. We take the time to make a full meal with dessert.”

Sandra said that the food has gained a reputation around Natchez, and when fried chicken and barbecue are on the menu, the line stays wrapped around both sides of the building all day.

The volunteers sometimes work with scraps of food, and they have to find a way to make a full and nutritious meal out of it. The volunteers have to get creative on how they’re going to put the meals together, Sandra said.

They also get donations from Pizza Hut, churches and farmers who grow their own vegetables.

With dealing with so many people every day, the volunteers also have to deal with several different personalities. And sometimes, that can be a struggle.

McNeal said that’s why the stewpot posts signs at their window prohibiting stealing and profanity.

“Some people come through and have attitudes,” McNeal said. “But you can’t let some people affect your attitude, so I try to understand their situation as much as I can. Normally, they come back the next day and apologize.”

When churches come to help on Sundays, Kirk Johnson said he prepares them for the different things they will come across working at a soup kitchen.

“I’m the eyes of the stewpot on Sundays when different churches come in and they don’t know our policies,” Kirk said. “They may not know how many plates one person is supposed to get, but the regulars know and may take too many.”

Though there are some difficulties working at the stewpot, Sandra said the good in it far outweighs the struggles.

She said knowing she’s helping people who depend on the meals is rewarding. Also, the stewpot’s connection with community service work adds an extra incentive.

Children who have committed crimes, or were suspended from school completes community service hours at the stewpot, and Sandra said she loves mentoring children.

“You get attached to the kids like they’re your own,” Sandra said.

Some children, like 7-year-old Sincyr Miller, were sent to the stewpot during the summer to learn about giving back.

But all-in-all, McNeal said the stewpot still needs more volunteers to compensate the number of recipients.

“We need more people to donate, not just the churches but people in the community, too,” McNeal said. “One day out of the week won’t hurt.”

McNeal said it is an experience that makes one feel good at the end of the day, and more people should get involved in order to have a healthier and closely-knitted community.