“This is one of the greatest joys in my life, to serve others here,”said Leif Peterson, the director of Grace Lutheran Church Welcome Center in Kenosha.
Peterson said of his work, “It’s unconditional love. I do it for the joy of serving others.”
The welcome center serves the homeless community and others in need in Kenosha. Its mission is to “strengthen families by supporting children and adults through offering hope, shelter, food and companionship and resources.”
The welcome center opened in February 2017 with the Rev. Jonathan Barker, a few volunteers and “about six participants sharing a pot of coffee and a little bit of food the first day,” Peterson said.
The center averages serving breakfast to 70-80 clients on a Friday, with a peak of about 130 in winter. The center’s recently opened food pantry, operational for over four months, is averaging serving about 40 families a week.
Peterson’s background is one of service to others. After retiring as the director of operations of Ridgewood Care Center in Racine County, he worked as the director of the hospitality center at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Racine.
After serving for two years at the hospitality center, Peterson said, “I was wondering aloud, ‘Oh, it took me a long time to find this, what are your plans for me, because I don’t want to have to spend another year looking for a volunteer opportunity.’ I came to Kenosha the next day with my wife. We had read about First Step closing, went there. They had closed the previous week, but someone answered the door and said that they had recently started a breakfast program here at Grace Lutheran.
“And so I walked over, the door was open, and I met the pastor and have been here ever since.”
Q: How many days of the week is the welcome center open?
A: We’re open on Thursday and Friday mornings; we open the door at 7 o’clock until 10 o’clock, 10:30 a.m. The food pantry is open on Tuesday nights from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. And we also partner with the Shalom Center soup kitchen; Wednesday night we have soup here. So, a lot of our volunteers help make that happen.
Q: And what are your duties here? Pretty much everything?
A: I’ve done every job we have, including janitorial. I write grants to bring in monies. I meet with community groups, community agencies who can support and help us. Work with the local schools. So I’m kind of a spokesperson for this initiative and the face of (it.) I do all of the direct supervision. Pastor Barker serves here in this church, but I am director of this program, which oversees the day program and the new food pantry. So I oversee all of that and make all of the connections for food and delegate. Denise Russell is the director of the food pantry, but ultimately she is under me as director of the entire program here.
Q: And how many volunteers do you have total?
A: Although we have probably seven dozen volunteers in all, we have about 36 volunteers who help us from week to week on a routine basis.
Q: And the census of the clients for the breakfast?
A: In 2018, we had a huge increase from the previous year. I think we served 5,500 people in 2018. I’m guessing we’ll probably be on track for about 7,000, and that’s meals, through the end of the year on Thursday and Friday for 2019. That’s our target right now, roughly 7,000 meals we will have served on Thursdays and Fridays.
Now, at the same time, we’re not just serving meals; that’s how we get people to come in the building. We’re availing them to services in the community. So we find out what their needs are, the food is what draws them in. They’re cold; they’re lonely; they’re desperate; they need help with this, that or the other. So once they trust us, they open up. They may just need counseling. Many people need showers, and we have men’s and women’s showers.
We’re averaging about 20 people a week on Thursdays and Fridays right now, men and women who are taking showers. And that’s going to be bigger during winter months. We give them new underwear and socks and toiletries. So they’re getting those things, which they have no access to. And we find out they need help with food, and we tell them about our food pantry.
A lot of people come here and look for all sorts of clothes, but that is the role of the ELCA Outreach Center, so we don’t duplicate other services in the community. So if someone comes to us and is desperately in need, we will take care of their immediate needs and then refer them to others. We also have onsite KHDS (Kenosha Human Development Services) workers every Thursday and Friday, so someone who is truly homeless (can) meet them, and we talk about the process for getting shelter. We work with them and we work with Shalom to get people shelter.
One of the things that I’ve worked on is to develop trust in the community as director so that people we are serving believe in us and also so that the other agencies and the politicians believe in what we are doing. So we limit our role. We don’t try to do everything. But what we do we do well. And they can bank on that.
When someone comes here desperately needing help, if we can’t take care of all of their needs, we’ll refer them to the agency that can take care of their needs. And we’ve never failed anyone; we never promise anything we can’t do. So that trust is in the neighborhood. So if someone is newly homeless, or needs help in any other area, they frequently come to us before they go elsewhere, because they know that they’ll receive a helping hand.
Q: Do you bike ride a lot?
A: I like to walk, but I really like to ride a bike. So that helps relieve stress, and it helps the creative mind. So I do a lot of thinking when I’m on the bike. Physically, it helps me maintain a good lifestyle. It’s big stress reliever, exercise always is. I also enjoy sailing; I’ve had several boats of my own in the past and now I’m sailing with a gentleman from Kenosha who has a boat down at the yacht club.
I also play music. I was a music therapist when I started. So in my retirement, I started a band called Men In Black, and we perform eight to 10 times a month at senior living centers. We’re going to be playing at Jerry Smith’s farm the first two weekends in October; we’ll be playing for the adults in the back.
Q: What do you enjoy most about your work?
A: The satisfaction of lifting up others. Not everybody is wired the same, but I do enjoy that. So you get a lot of gratification in knowing that your efforts have helped others in this community. One thing that led me here: You see a lot of missionaries or missions going across the country, or even to other countries in the world, halfway around the world, to serve others in need, but I think we have a responsibility to take care of people in our own backyard as well. To me, that’s a stronger pull.
I want to lift up people right where I live. I don’t need to travel 600 miles or 6,000 miles to do that.