The faces of hungry or homeless individuals in Cleveland are easy for many to overlook because they do not see them every day.
“I never realized that there were so many people involved in being homeless in Cleveland, ’cause you don’t really see them out much unless you come to this area over here by Ocoee,” Brenda Crumbley said.
That was before she started working with New Life Bible Church Community Kitchen.
Now, as the lead pastor for the ministry, Crumbley sees the need on a daily basis.
The Community Kitchen serves one hot meal a day, six days a week from noon to 2 p.m. The kitchen is open Sunday through Friday. The mission of the Community Kitchen “is to help those who are in need, that are homeless (or) low income,” Crumbley said.
“We’re here to fill their bellies, but we are also here to give them direction to a better place,” Crumbley said.
The number of people served varies depending on when people have received their paychecks or food stamps. Many who come to the kitchen are unemployed.
Although numbers fluctuate, Crumbley said the kitchen can average 70 to 90 people a day.
“Sometimes it will go for like three months at a steady pace of 80 or 90 people (a day),” Crumbley said.
Each visitor to the kitchen is asked to sign in at the front desk.
“Not all of them will do it, because they don’t like putting their name on anything,” Crumbley said.
She said about 30 percent of those who come to the kitchen are homeless.
In addition to providing one hot meal a day, the kitchen gives out groceries on the last Wednesday of the month from 10 a.m. to noon.
Food items such as bread, fruits and vegetables are often donated and made available for clients to choose.
“When things are donated, we give out personal items,” Crumbley said.
She said the ministry has a limited space where it stores clothes and coats, which are distributed to those without a coat or who are homeless.
Crumbley said she serves as a listening ear and counselor, and sometimes shows tough love by telling individuals they need to make changes in their lives.
“You become a little bit of everything to them — mother, father, brother, sister — mostly just learning to love them where they are, so they can get past it. And letting them know its just a season.
“A lot of people think homelessness is just something that can never change. I want to encourage people. I want to tell them you are going through a season in your life, you don’t have to stay there,” Crumbley said.
“And there are a lot of them that have changed. A lot of them have given their hearts to the Lord.”
She said there are at least six students at New Life Bible College, who started out as clients of the community kitchen.
“We want to help them, but we want them to grow, too, and bring change to their life,” Crumbley said.
Kim Cook became homeless when her husband died. She said the Community Kitchen and her church helped her during that time.
Homelessness was temporary for Cook. She now has an apartment at the Cleveland Summit and is working on becoming an evangelist through a program at her church.
Those who want to stay homeless make up only a small percentage of the people she has worked with, Crumbley said.
She said the majority of people do want to change their lives.
The Community Kitchen partners with the Restoration Ranch to help those struggling with addictions.
“We have about seven of them at different ranches right know. We’ve paid for their bus and their blood work if they don’t have insurance,” Crumbley said. “We [had] one major, chronic alcoholic who people would say would never make it ... finally he got to the point where he said, ‘I know if I don’t do something, I know I’m going to die.’ He lived homeless for years.”
The man graduated from the program and is now one of the counselors.
Churches throughout the community also partner with the kitchen to provide volunteers. She said these church groups help give the regular volunteers a break.
She encourages those who come to regularly attend a church in town.
“We don’t try to force you to have to come to church here before you can eat here or anything like that,” Crumbley said.
For some, Crumbley is their only pastor. She said some call the community kitchen their church because the daily devotional time at the kitchen is the only church service they attend.
A sense of community is felt by many who come to the kitchen.
“This isn’t a soup kitchen. This is a community kitchen,” said a diner who goes by just “C.J.”
C.J. explained a soup kitchen has a connotation that people are in a hurry to eat and leave. At the Community Kitchen, individuals find a place to build relationships, “a place for fellowship,” he said.
“It has changed my life totally,” Olivia Dyer said of coming to the kitchen.
Dyer now volunteers with the ministry.
Although the Community Kitchen is open to everyone, sometimes safety issues require that an individual be asked to leave.
“We want to keep it peaceful and people feel safe when they come down here. And, I’ve actually heard them say, ‘This is where I feel safe,’” Crumbley said.
The Community Kitchen has been a ministry of New Life Bible Church for more than 30 years.
“Brother Norvel (Hayes) — the Lord had spoke to him and told him that He wanted him to start feeding the poor,” Crumbley said. “He didn’t realize there was such a need until the Lord spoke to him and showed him.”
Knowledge of the ministry is spread mostly by word of mouth.
“There are people still in Cleveland who say today, ‘I didn’t know it even existed and I’ve been here all my life,’” Crumbley said.
Community partnerships are important to the ministry. The kitchen also partners with Lee University by letting students volunteer to fulfill community service hours required by the school. Sometimes families volunteer together. Any volunteer under the age of 18 must be accompanied by an adult.
“A lot of times parents think, ‘It would be really good for my child to come down here.’ I always tell them it would probably be good for the whole family. It’s not only for children to learn to be thankful; sometimes parents need to learn to be thankful,” Crumbley said. “We live in like a little bubble [where] we forget what’s going on around us. We live in our own little world of what we have going on, and we forget the needs of other people.”
She said she would like to see companies in the community be willing to give people with criminal backgrounds a chance.
“They’ve made mistakes, now they want to change, but how are they going to get a chance to change if they can’t get a job?” Crumbley asked.
She has established a partnership with someone who is self-employed who calls her when he needs workers. This is something she would like to expand.
The Community Kitchen is funded through offerings from New Life Bible Church and donations from community partners.
For more information, call Crumbley at 423-479-5434, ext. 114.