by Emily Ness & Emilee Wolf
It was on March 15th, 1982, that the Damiano Center’s soup kitchen served its first meal.
The building’s faded brick exterior and stained glass windows reflect the time that has passed.
A statue of the Virgin Mary sits at the front of the building. Over the years, she has watched many come and go.
Today, 34 years later, the Damiano Center has grown to be the largest emergency meal provider in Northeastern Minnesota.
To walk into the Damiano Center at lunch time is to enter one of the city’s defining public spaces. Chances are, you’ll leave feeling humbled. After all, it is places like the Damiano Center that make the city of Duluth livable for everyone — Including its most vulnerable residents.
The center’s soup kitchen fills quickly — bringing sounds of chitchat, the scraping of chairs on floor tiles, and the thud of trays being knocked against the inside of trash cans.
Men, women and children stand in line where they accept trays that quickly fill with roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, corn, milk and chocolate pudding.
The guests eat and finish, and rise and leave — most without a word, and often times getting back in line for seconds. Newcomers settle in beside them.
Sandy Bennett has been the Food Service Manager at the Damiano Center for 17 years. She has long had a passion for serving others.
“People can eat until they are full,” Bennett said.
The soup kitchen’s portions are generous. The menu for each meal has been designed to provide a person with enough calories to last twenty-four hours. Most people who eat at the soup kitchen look like anybody. If you sat across from them on the bus, you would never guess how hungry they are.
According to Katherine Mueller, Development Director, the center typically feeds 50 people breakfast, 200-400 people lunch and 100-200 people dinner.
“We rely heavily on donations. We often receive day old bread and food close to its expiration date from a number of grocery stores, restaurants and so on,” Mueller said.
As a result of donations, The Damiano Center is able to provide meals five days a week, feeding the masses.
“In addition to the meals that we serve, we keep a number of food items on hand.” Bennett said. “If someone comes in hungry, we don’t turn them away.”
Since serving its first meal, The Damiano Center has evolved to include a multitude of programs.
Like the Soup Kitchen, The Kids Cafe is another one of the center’s sought after programs.
Similarly to a classroom, The Kids Cafe is adorned with artwork, name tags and books. Here, children are provided after school care.
The program includes tutors, nutrition education, activities and so on.
“We have a garden in the backyard where kids are able to plant seeds and grow food,” Mueller said. “Just last week, they made carrot cake with the carrots that they had planted.”
In addition to teaching children about food, The Kids Cafe celebrates a variety of holidays. This past October, they even had a Halloween party.
“We try to recognize all of the kids’ cultures,” Mueller said.
Two more notable programs at The Damiano Center are The Clothing Exchange Program and The Clothes That Work Program. The first provides individuals with everyday wear and the second provides individuals with formal wear.
“I am so happy to be here,” Donna Verhel, Clothes that Work Coordinator said.“I think that I found my calling. You know how places sometimes find you? That is what happened here.”
Jackets, hats and mittens of all colors and sizes hang neatly around the room. The Damiano Center receives a number of donations — especially during the cold season.
“We have one anonymous donor who knits hats of all sizes and colors,” Bennett said. “Each year, she donates over 100.”
Warm clothes are available to whomever, whenever.
"If someone does need a coat, gloves or a hat, they are welcome to stop by at any time, as we keep our winter clothes in the lobby.” Mueller said. “They are welcome to come, take whatever warm item that they need, and go on their way.”
Finally, The Community Service Program, like other programs, is appreciated by many. It provides individuals with advocacy, gas vouchers, bus tokens, telephone lines and connections to other community resources.
“My job is incredibly rewarding,” Doug Happy, community services specialist said. “The people that we help are so appreciative. Sometimes, I will see people that I helped in the past walking down the street. They always greet me with a smile.”
Based on all that it does to help members of our community, The Damiano Center is most definitely a necessary asset in a livable city.