Shannon Santos, Executive Director of Someone Cares Soup Kitchen and Tutoring Program
Orange County isn’t exactly the first place you think of as needing a soup kitchen. But tell that to the more than 300 hungry men, women and children who show up for a hot meal – or two – every day at Costa Mesa’s Someone Cares Soup Kitchen. Unfortunately, its huge hall is packed seven days a week.
The Soup Kitchen, now in its 28th year, would be a special place for that reason alone, but what makes it truly incredible is the fact that it was founded by one very dedicated woman, with her own money, sweat, and even soup. That woman was the late Merle Hatleberg, a person who never saw an excuse she liked and refused to take no for an answer – whether it was from a boss who told her to stop feeding non-seniors or a bank that refused to giver her a loan.
“My grandmother was very old-school. She believed in hard work, simplicity, and treating people with respect,” says Hatleberg’s granddaughter and the current Soup Kitchen executive director, Shannon Santos. “She wanted to help people and she wasn’t going to let anyone stop her.”
And Santos is using that same attitude to keep the community supported Soup Kitchen dishing out hot meals. So we sat down with Santos to find out how a Soup Kitchen started by a woman who decided to mix up a pot of soup and dish it out to 30 hungry people in 1986 now serves more that 300,000 meals a year.
How did you end up in your current location?
My grandmother was a very frugal woman, and she saved and saved. So in 1997 she had saved around $100,000 over 11 years. One day, she and my aunt were driving down the road and saw the for sale sign on this building and she said, that’s the place. She went to the bank for a loan and they denied her. So she met with the owner, So Ching Lee, the father of the guys who started Wahoo’s Fish Taco. He loved the work she was doing, so they ended up doing an owner-to-owner purchase. She gave him a big down payment, everything she had. Lee gave the down payment money to his sons, which they used as the seed money for Wahoo’s Fish Taco. And that whole family has been huge supporters of the Soup Kitchen to this day. Basically, they gave us our chance.
How did you get involved?
I was a stay at home mom with three children, and when my youngest was going into kindergarten, I was ready to do something. My grandmother offered me the position of manager. At that point she was confined to a wheelchair, so she wanted me to be her eyes and ears and make sure all the guests’ needs were being taken care of.
How did that go?
I was so green when I started. My very first day, my grandmother said, “Shannon, all these people are coming in wearing tank tops and they can’t wear those. So I want you to order some T-shirts for them.” So I said, “Fine, who do I call and how much do you want me to pay?” She looked at me like I had two heads and said, “Pay? We can’t pay for it, you get it donated.” I said, “Okay, how?” She said, “You pick up the phone and start asking.” I realized that there is truly an art to “the ask.” My grandmother taught me the art.
What are the requirements for people who come for a meal?
What gets you a meal?
The need. That’s it.
What gets you kicked out?
If you’ve been drinking or are under the influence of drugs. And it’s pretty easy to detect because we have a gentleman who meets and greets our guests at the front door. And of course, fighting. Most people know the rules, and if they’ve been drinking, they’re not going to make the journey over here.
How much can they eat?
We allow them to go through the serving line three times. And as they leave, they’re able to take a prepared light meal with them for later. It’s a lot of food, but we know that this might be the only food they get all day.
Did you see the effects of the recession at the Soup Kitchen?
Oh, yes, especially 2008 through 2010. Our numbers were increasing so much that people I thought were coming in to volunteer were actually coming in for a meal. Basically, the face of the hungry changed. We were feeding [middle-class] people who had lost their jobs and were losing their homes. We were even feeding the working poor. The soup kitchen was their way of surviving and staying in their homes. We saw people who were coming in on their lunch break. They were making it by a thread.
Right or wrong, there’s a stigma to having to eat at a soup kitchen. Was it hard for those new guests who had never been on the street to come in and sit next to people who perhaps they helped serve the week before?
To have to go eat at a soup kitchen does demand humility. To walk into the soup kitchen for the first time, maybe with your children, that’s tough, probably not a great day for you. But we go back to the compassion of the work that we do and try to make it a positive experience. I love meeting and greeting people coming in and want them to feel that they are special. That this is a place where they can leave the troubles that got them here outside. I want them to come in and relax and decompress over a hot, healthy meal. We want to get to know them. Most of all, we remember that it could be any one of us needing a meal at some point.
What is the typical Soup Kitchen guest?
There isn’t one. That’s one thing I’d love to be able to change: people’s perspective on who typically goes to a soup kitchen. They think it’s the chronically homeless, or the mentally ill, or substance abusers. But it’s really not just that. If there’s one message I’d like to get across is that it’s mostly people who just don’t have the means to cook a good healthy meal. They come here, meet friends, talk about current events. It’s a special place.
You serve many families, too.
Yes. Primarily, we serve families on the weekends because the kids are in school during the week. We have three long, family-sized tables and on the weekend two of those are taken up by children. It’s great. They can sit with other kids and have a good, healthy meal. It’s a very nurturing, loving environment.
You also have a tutoring program, started in 2001.
Yes, with 45 students from Pomona Elementary School. The teachers themselves write up the profile, listing socially, academically and behaviorally where the student is and what their greatest need is. Then the students come over to the soup kitchen four days a week after school, where we have two staff members overseeing the program. So each student gets four hours of individual instruction every week.
Is it based on financial need?
No, it’s based on academic need. It was my grandmother’s brainstorm. She had a lot of families who were coming in with babies and she felt that through education, these kids would have a brighter future. And she felt that the key was to get to them early, that if they started off on a solid foundation they had a chance to achieve their academic goals and goals in life.
Was there a specific experience in her life that led to your grandmother wanting to give back so much?
When she was young, her husband, my grandfather, was injured while in the service and was in Walter Reed Hospital for over a year. My grandmother had a lot of kids and she had to seek assistance from the American Red Cross. I think that was very humbling to her, and she later worked with the American Red Cross as a way of giving back. She wanted to repay the kindness that was given to her. In fact, in 2003, she won the Clara Martin Award for Outstanding Woman of Orange County from the Red Cross. That was one of her biggest honors and matters of pride.
How do you remember your grandmother?
My grandmother was a lot of things to me. She was my mentor, my grandmother, and my boss. And she was probably the toughest boss I’ve had because she wanted me to learn and prove to her and myself that I could do this. Now, I’m really thankful to her for that.
What’s the future for the Soup Kitchen?
I’d like to see the soup kitchen partner with other agencies that can help people with employment and education, so that we’re not just feeding people, but helping them get away from needing assistance. Getting to that next level of total independence. I think that was always the goal of my grandmother.
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