Nine-year-old Jasmine Leis says she loves animals. She also loves counting them out loud — math is her favorite subject.
“I have four cats, one dog and had 10 fish,” Jasmine said, explaining that addition, subtraction and even algebra are easy for her.
Jasmine is one of about a dozen schoolchildren who eat at the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen (DESK) in New Haven on any given night. A fourth grader at the Church Street School in Hamden, she comes with her mother for a warm meal about twice a week.
As the economic climate has worsened over the past few years, DESK director Diana Richter said that a steadily increasing number of people have found themselves turning to the soup kitchen for help. While children like Jasmine have little control over where they eat with their families, the soup kitchen provides necessary food and a place where they can share meals with others in similar circumstances.
CONFRONTING THE UNEXPECTED
Jasmine’s 30-year-old mother Kerri Anderson said she never expected to be eating in a soup kitchen, but life took her by surprise.
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She recalled that while growing up in New Haven she was aware of the homeless population, but she never thought she would be in their situation. After high school, she said, she had planned on going to college. She wanted to have a career and perhaps get married around 30 and have some children.
“Things didn’t work out like that at all,” Anderson said.
“Well, you had some children,” Jasmine chimed in.
Anderson said she started coming to DESK with her daughter in 2009. At the time, she was going through a divorce with Jasmine’s father and was pregnant with her now 1-year-old son, Jasmine’s half-brother Bryan. Anderson said that she and her ex-husband now share joint-custody over Jasmine, doing whatever necessary to make things work.
Newly single, Anderson did not have a job and had moved into Columbus House, a shelter that houses over 80 homeless or at-risk residents of New Haven. She learned about DESK from others staying there.
Anderson went to DESK about two or three times a month, she said, often on Friday and Saturday nights when residents of Columbus House go there together for dinner. On other nights of the week, she ate at other food pantries and charity organizations in New Haven.
Initially Anderson said she felt uncomfortable eating meals at DESK, but knew she needed to ease the financial burden of buying food.
“The first time I went [to the soup kitchen] I was mortified and worried about who was going to see me,” Anderson said. “But … at the time, it wasn’t even just about me because I was pregnant, so I had to get over the issues I was having.”
Though DESK sees the most patrons in the summer months, when 350 dinners are served weekly, even during the winter anywhere from 100 to 250 guests frequent the soup kitchen each week. According to Richter, some children who eat at DESK have grown up with poverty and the soup kitchen, but now others such as Jasmine are just beginning to dine there.
‘A VERY DELICATE SITUATION’
The soup kitchen does all it can to ensure that New Haven youth don’t go hungry, Richter said.
Kids are allowed to jump to the front of the soup kitchen line, and the volunteers make sure they have a safe environment in which to eat.
“For children, eating with people you don’t know is a very different situation from the norm,” Richter said. “We try not to make a big deal out of children who come to the soup kitchen, but at the same time we look out for them. It’s a very delicate situation.”
When asked what it is like to eat at a soup kitchen as a kid, Jasmine shrugged her shoulders and looked toward her mother. Shy about discussion of the soup kitchen, she said quietly that it is just where they eat about once a week.
Jasmine said she has one other friend at school who attends soup kitchens, but that after two years of attendance she herself has become accustomed to eating some meals at DESK. She and her mother also eat at other soup kitchens in New Haven, and Anderson said she sometimes prepares food provided from the food pantry.
Margaret Coons ’14, who volunteers almost every Friday with other Yale students at DESK, said serving there helps her feel like she is part of the greater New Haven community. She added that she sometimes wonders what it is like to be a kid “in a room full of about 100 men, many of whom have mental disabilities or substance problems.”
“The kids are there because of factors beyond their control, she said. “It’s really hard emotionally to see them come to the soup kitchen.”
Now, the most important thing in Anderson’s life is making sure that she and her two children — whom she collectively calls “the Three Musketeers” — are happy and healthy.
Anderson said she wants Jasmine to be tolerant and accepting of everyone, regardless of their backgrounds. By going to the soup kitchen, she said, she hopes her daughter will not see the world “through rose-colored glasses,” but instead realize that there are people who need DESK and New Haven’s other soup kitchens more than she does.
“Sometimes people don’t realize how far kindness and generosity and just asking how you are will go, even though what they’re doing might not seem like much at the time,” she said.
Click here for more information about Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen and its work in New Haven.