St. Augustine Hunger Center Busier Than Ever During Pandemic

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Like restaurants, the St. Augustine Hunger Center – which gives away hundreds of free meals every day, even in a “normal” year – has been forced to make some major adjustments through the coronavirus pandemic. 

St. Augustine Hunger Center’s new COVID-19 guidelines, requiring face coverings, gloves and temperature checks, didn’t deter Eric McMillon, who is volunteering for the 19th straight year.

“Everybody needs somebody’s help, no matter what. So if I can give back to the community and I ain’t doing nothing, I’ll do it," McMillon said.

Betty and Gene Hanzely from North Olmsted are in their 20th year of volunteering. Face coverings weren’t a problem for them either. 

“I like to do this,” Gene Hanzely said. “These people here, they’re great people. And Sister Corita and Father Joe – I do anything for those guys."

Betty and Gene Hanzely didn't mind wearing masks to keep up their volunteering tradition at the St. Augustine Hunger Center . [Gabriel Kramer / ideastream]

Sister Corita Ambro and Father Joseph McNulty have been managing the hunger center and providing free meals to those in need for decades.

And they don’t take this pandemic lightly.

“I don’t want these people to get sick either,” Ambro said. “We don’t anybody to get sick and the only way we can keep them healthy is by following the rules that are there. The masks, the distance, and the food – it’s important for them to eat.”

Until last week, the hunger center eliminated indoor seating, with very few exceptions. That meant packing up more meals for pickup or contactless delivery. The Tremont center has been serving about 700 people per day lately, McNulty said, a few hundred more would usually be served in person.

Luis Gonzalez is the director of the St. Augustine Hunger Center and also cooks some of the meals. The atmosphere there this year is quite different than years past, he said.

"Not a lot of people around. We don't get to see everybody like we usually do," Gonzalez said. "We can't just stop feeding the people. We got too many homeless people out here that have a hard time getting meals."

Patrick Branaghan started coming to the hunger center for meals after the pandemic began and said he's thankful it has stayed open for takeout and delivery.

"I appreciate it most kindly, a nice hot meal," Branaghan said. "I'm a disabled vet and it's hard for me to get around the house, so making a meal is hard for me, so it makes it much better."

The St. Augustine Hunger Center has mostly offered meals through pickup or delivery services this year because of the pandemic. [Gabriel Kramer / ideastream]

The pandemic has left the hunger center with far fewer volunteers this year, McNulty said. He’s hoping to find more heading into Thanksgiving, when St. Augustine is projected to serve about 17,000 meals.

“No matter what your religious background is on Thanksgiving Day, we all give thanks to God in this country. Most of us try to do it in some way with our families,” McNulty said.  “We look upon the poor community, the people in need, as part of our family.” 

As winter approaches, the hunger center has opened some indoor seating spaces for those who really need it, though strict distancing is enforced.

On Thanksgiving Day, the center can make up to nine locations – some off site – available for indoor dining. But that would still seat fewer people than they do on a normal Thanksgiving. 

Ambro one adjustment was tougher than any of the new protocols – tougher than less seating, fewer volunteers and masks.

“I’m a hugger and on Thanksgiving Day I can’t hug people,” she said. “Hugs say something nothing else can say. It’s going to be different for me, but as long as we’re still feeding them and they’re grateful – and they are – I have no worries.”

After the New Year, McNulty plans to as pastor of St. Augustine Parish – a role he's held since 1977. But even in retirement, he said he will continue to stay busy with the church and the hunger center.

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