A brisk wind swirled in the parking lot outside the Uptown Pantry at 22nd Avenue and 61st Street Sunday as a crowd of about 30 people began to gather near four banquet tables.
Upon one of the larger tables were large aluminum warming containers filled with baked ham, fried chicken, spaghetti and meatballs, heaps of mac and cheese, collard greens and coleslaw — and more was coming.
On another table, the wind carried the sweet smells of baked goodies, including double chocolate chip cookies, cupcakes with whipped frosting, muffins and a dozen different types of pie, from apple to berry to peach and pumpkin.
And for about three hours, the free feast — an early Thanksgiving — brought people together dozens of people from the streets, from homes in the surrounding neighborhood and other parts of Kenosha.
People shouldn’t go hungry when a community cares, according to Arnetta Griffin, who organized the buffet-style meal. Griffin, who has been handing out free meals at least twice a day in the city’s Uptown area since late May, was joined by her family, volunteers from Acts Church, where she is a member, Walkin’ in My Shoes and the homeless people she serves.
“My kids cooked some. I cooked a couple of them, but we had a lot of donations,” said Griffin, hugging and greeting people who came to help or to eat, or both. “And there’s a lot of volunteers here.”
Griffin, who was featured recently in the Kenosha News, said the coverage led to numerous donations of food served at the banquet.
But that wasn’t all; donations of clothing would be arriving shortly, too.
“We just got coats and sleeping bags, too. My son’s going to get it right now,” she said, handing him keys.
She said she had never expected the generosity and outpouring.
“I was just out here doing God’s work,” she said. “And look how it came!”
Before it came time to eat, the people, young and old and of diverse backgrounds, joined hands to pray and give thanks for their blessings.
“Heavenly Father, I look around me and see the people that love me. I reach my hand out to you and I think every day, God, please bless me one more time,” said Carl Igram Jr., a homeless veteran from Kenosha, who led the prayer.
Igram said he has been living on the streets and had previously been served by First Step, a former “wet shelter” for the area’s homeless, that closed in the spring.
“We’ve been living on the streets, and that ain’t right. It was cold last night,” he said of the driving wind and rain. “If we were bad guys, we’d be locked up already. We are not bad guys.”
He was joined by friend and fellow veteran Michael Zyddik, who had been at First Step until it closed. Both said Griffin has been a godsend, and it’s why they help her, too.
“You know, it’s not easy being a vet. ... We served our country, so we can have this,” he said, referring to basic human needs. “I let her know where the other homeless people are who can’t make it here. I let her know where to go to feed them.
Samuel Parks, who lives on the city’s north side, heard about the community meal through the Urban Outreach Center. As he sat down with about a dozen others at a one of the tables, Parks shared a piece of chicken with a woman who asked for a bite. And he obliged.
“It’s good food. It’s very nice of (Griffin) to try to help people,” he said. “I think she’s doing a good job.”
Parks, who usually “hangs out” in Uptown, said he was happy to be part of the feast.
“I walked up here to have me a nice meal,” he said. “It’s so nice, and I’m having a nice time because there ain’t no violence up her today. And that’s a good thing. It brings the community together without any fighting.”
Lending a hand
Tanya Smith, who also attends Acts Church, said Griffin and her fellow worshipers began helping the homeless after a barbecue at the church earlier this spring.
“We had so much extra food, and she said, ‘Well, let’s serve the homeless,’” Smith said. “It just touched our heart to see so many people that need it. And she started out with 10 to 15 plates, and now, she’s serving multiples.
“And, she refuses to go home until she’s finished serving everyone,” she said. “And, she will find people, if they tell her where they are, so they can eat.”
Griffin’s service has inspired others.
Jeff Schenning of Kenosha said he and his wife, Susan, began helping last week, serving food and taking donations for the feast.
“Everywhere I turned, it was good people, and people with great big hearts,” he said of Sunday’s event. “It’s not about glory for her at all. She gives all the glory to the good Lord.”
Those who couldn’t stay to eat could take food with them
Elicia Pavlovich and her children held plates of fried chicken, spaghetti, greens and desserts to take home with them. The family lives near Uptown. Pavlovich’s grandmother also cooked a meal for the feast.
“It’s nice for somebody to do this in an area where a lot of the homeless are at,” she said of Griffin. “She always gives my kids some food.”