Kristi Armstrong pulled up to the Salvation Army’s headquarters on Inman Street to find a long line of people waiting in the back.
“It’s cold outside,” several of the people said as she walked to the door. “Let us in.”
Those honest words and the simple request just about broke her heart.
“It is not like they are begging,” Armstrong said. “They want to make themselves better. They want to help others. They have goals.”
On average 200 to 300 people show up every Saturday for the weekly lunch provided by the Family Kitchen. The newly made nonprofit grew from the desire of Armstrong’s daughter Lindsey to meet a need in her hometown. She noticed there were individuals who lacked food, and she responded with muffins.
The first early morning breakfast drop was in January 2013. Her efforts soon grew to include everyone in her family, her friends, the Salvation Army, food stores throughout the community and local nonprofits.
“It was like starting a new business,” Armstrong recalled. “We didn’t know. We didn’t have anyone we could go to. We didn’t know what to do. So we have learned and grown from that.”
Bob, Kristi’s husband and Lindsey’s father, is the cook. Recently he stayed up until midnight to make 400 handmade meatballs for the Saturday lunch. Christian, Bob and Kristi’s son and Lindsey’s brother, is a fourth-grader and the official dessert coordinator. The Armstrongs decided at the beginning they would only give out food they themselves would eat.
And, according to the smiles of the people waiting in line, Bob’s cooking is good.
“We aren’t going to feed them something out of a can. It is not that food out of can is bad, but we want them to have a healthy meal,” Bob said. “We always have something different. They don’t get the same thing every week.”
The initial plan was to provide breakfast on Saturdays. Lindsey quickly realized the need was greater than a box of muffins — even 75 of them. As an intern with the Salvation Army, Lindsey knew about the industrial kitchen in the back of the building. She asked to use the facilities every Saturday. Ever since, she and her family have teamed up with local groups to provide a hot meal on a weekly basis.
The numbers are growing.
According to Bob, the last Saturday saw more than 300 people walk through the doors. It triggers a mixed response in the Armstrongs. On one hand, the family appreciates the word has spread about the feeding ministry. On the other, 300 people in need is an alarming number.
Kristi, Bob and Lindsey agreed it is time to once again take the Family Kitchen to the next level.
“We need a building with an industrial kitchen, a walk-in freezer and a walk-in cooler where we can store this stuff,” Kristi said. “A place where they can come in and feel a part.”
Mounds of food have been donated to the nonprofit. Without a building to store the items, the Armstrongs must keep a majority of the food in their townhouse. Kristi said there are stacks of bread in the limited space.
The family and volunteers are attempting to hand out the food as quickly as they can. This often means impromptu breakfast deliveries. Publix currently donates leftover baked goods four times a week. A problem of a too much food for the amount of space owned has developed.
“If we had our own building then breakfast and dinner would be provided. Hunger would not be an issue,” Lindsey said. “Of course we would still partner with the Salvation Army. We have a great relationship with them and other nonprofits and people in the community.”
The Family Kitchen has partnered with area nonprofits like The Caring Place to provide even more aid to those in need. Lindsey talked excitedly about helping homeless individuals and the working poor enroll in self-improvement courses at The Refuge.
A long-range plan is to have a facility with enough space for programs needed to help those in need.
“We need showers for girls, showers for men, a washer and a dryer,” Bob said. “They would take a shower, if they [had the opportunity].”
Added Kristi, “We would like to grow it into a transitional living facility. If it is storming or snowing outside, they wouldn’t have to walk out at 8 o’clock and wonder what they have to do from 8 until the doors open again.”
Cleveland residents might be surprised by the amount of need in the city and county.
The Armstrongs have been involved in outreach ministries for years and they were surprised by the number who turned out for food.
Reasons for unemployment or homelessness differ from person to person. For some it is drugs or alcohol. A majority of those in need appear to be victims of circumstance. Many find themselves in a rough spot due to a bad divorce or being laid off.
Lindsey recalled listening to a man talk about his children. He was at the homeless shelter and she asked after their whereabouts. He responded, “They are at my home.” He said he and his wife got a divorce, which ultimately left him on the streets.
According to the Armstrongs, their experience has let them see that most of the homeless and unemployed want better for themselves.
A man told Lindsey he could read and write. What he could not do was show up to a job interview wearing his shabby clothes.
“I forget that, sometimes,” Lindsey said. “I forget a lot of times what they have on — is what they have.”
Bob said there are always offers to help out from those receiving food. One man scrubbed the dining area and kitchen on his hands and knees. Another stayed behind to sweep. The goal is to incorporate those individuals into the volunteer work at the Family Kitchen.
“[One of the volunteers] said they are some of the sweetest people I think I have ever met,” Lindsey said. “People are intimidated to come up and say hello. From the second they come in to the second they leave, they say thank you for everything.”
For now the Armstrongs are hoping to hear positive news concerning a new building, or an old one renovated to fit their needs.
“We have committed to the Family Kitchen for the rest of our lives,” Bob said. “It has brought our family closer than we have ever been. We look at things differently, in a different perspective.”