For the past six months, retirees Peggy Hanson and Frank Wright have enjoyed morning coffee every weekday in their downtown Saint Paul apartment, then walked to the Saint Paul Opportunity Center to volunteer in the kitchen. Peggy describes herself as “a recovering lawyer” who—for 20 years—owned a bed and breakfast in Lanesboro. Frank worked in veterinary and zoo medicine, then became a wood artist who has made thousands of wooden spoons over the past 25 years. They describe themselves as “food enthusiasts”: Frank is a lifelong gardener and forager, and Peggy has done food writing.
What is it like to work in the kitchen? What are your favorite parts of the job?
FRANK: We enjoy putting a meal together—so what could be nicer than preparing food for people who are hungry? Volunteering has been a nice routine for us during the pandemic, and the hours pass quickly. We enjoy having a big pile of produce plopped down in front of us—beets or carrots or sweet potatoes. We don’t cry when we cut onions. When mangoes showed up, I learned you could really make a mess—but enjoyed the challenge of getting through a couple cases.
PEGGY: And I like taking a big sack of cabbage and working it down to shreds—I feel like I have accomplished something! Some work is repetitive, but there is flexibility and variety, and you can take on more responsibility. I like getting to know the nice variety of volunteers—of all ages. It is a very safe environment.
What have you learned about challenges facing our community?
PEGGY: We have decent awareness of poverty and homelessness, but we learn a lot being there. It can be shocking to see challenges people face. But there is real culture of acceptance. There is a full gamut of folks, and you get to see their individuality. Maybe one is OCD and is slow moving forward in line. One constantly taps his feet. And one person is always first in line—in fact, he wasn’t there for a few days, and when he returned, we told him we were worried about him!
FRANK: You don’t know anyone’s story, but everyone has a story: who knows what happened in this person’s life? Sometimes when they come through the line, they are not happy campers. I want to be accepting and respectful to this person wherever they are at.
What keeps you coming back?
PEGGY: To me, it is a kind of witnessing. Intellectually we know there is suffering in the world. We can do a little something, offering kindness and dignity to people who could use some. Being there, we are reminded how fortunate we are. We talk with our friends about what we do, too. I also value that Catholic Charities is not just about day-to-day services—but also advocacy and justice and looking at systems. I would not volunteer with an organization unless it also worked on the justice side of the street.
FRANK: There are great people working there, and I enjoy the relationships and friendships. Also, we are fortunate: when I had bumps along the road, there were people who went out of their way to help me get through it. I enjoy greeting people in the serving line and saying good morning—some reciprocate, some don’t. Because we live in the neighborhood, it’s not unusual to encounter meal guests on the street. You recognize each other, there’s a little acknowledgment—a nod, a hello, or a handwave. This is our neighborhood! Community does not start and end at that serving line—we are all in the same community.