Nursing home residents prepare food for the hungry

LYNN -- For decades, Michael Kwiatek has volunteered at Phillips Manor nursing home in Lynn and My Brother's Table, the largest soup kitchen on the North Shore. But it was only six months ago that he realized there was a way to connect the two ministries.

Kwiatek is a Eucharistic minister and a member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society at Our Lady of the Assumption Parish in Lynn. He first came to Phillips Manor when a woman to whom he was delivering Holy Communion moved there. He then discovered that many of the residents are Catholic, and he began bringing Communion to them, as well. He has since taken on other roles for them, including playing Santa Claus and taking his grandchildren caroling there at Christmas.

Phillips Manor is a small, homelike facility, with 22 beds and 14 current residents. The youngest, at 65 years old, is Barbara Harrison, who is also part of the St. Vincent de Paul Society and receives Communion from Kwiatek each week.

Kwiatek also volunteers a few days a week at My Brother's Table, which provides hot meals and other services for the hungry and homeless every day. Some volunteers make sandwiches in their homes for the soup kitchen to distribute. About six months ago, Kwiatek realized that such a task might be a good activity for the Phillips Manor residents.

"I'm always looking for ways to make them feel like they're useful, not just sitting on a shelf doing nothing," he said.

Each Tuesday morning, he picks up bread, peanut butter and jelly from My Brother's Table, donated from the Greater Boston Food Bank and a local grocery store. He brings the supplies to Phillips Manor, and a handful of residents gather to prepare the sandwiches.

Since the residents have varying levels of ability -- some have experienced strokes, impaired sight or hearing, or dementia -- Kwiatek and the Manor staff set up an assembly line, so each person performs just one part of the sandwich-making process. One spreads the peanut butter, another spreads the jelly, another puts the bread together, and another puts the sandwich in a plastic bag. They work until they have gone through all the supplies, which usually takes about an hour and a half.

"It's like a challenge: can our stamina make it through all of this bread? And then we're covered with peanut butter and jelly afterward. It is quite comical!" Harrison said.

For the Phillips Manor residents, making the sandwiches is partly a social activity, as they listen to music and joke with each other while making the sandwiches. But it is also a form of service and a way to stay connected with the local community.

They usually make between 300 and 350 sandwiches, which Kwiatek then drops off at My Brother's Table to be distributed at lunchtime. Sometimes, homeless people hanging out near the soup kitchen see him delivering the food and offer a hand in exchange for a sandwich.

"Their eyes light up over a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. When you have a full belly, you don't realize how much it means," Kwiatek said.

Harrison said that as a Vincentian, she has always done things for other people. She thought that would have to end when she moved into Phillips Manor last year.

"I saw my life contributing and making a difference, and I came here and thought all that was going to stop, and it didn't," she said.

She expressed gratitude "to have something that you can do that's outside of yourself, so you're selfless, and it is contributing to society, but it's also feeding people that would go without otherwise."

"As I sit and have my meal after, I'm grateful that I have a meal and I have a roof over my head, and many people don't have that," Harrison said.

Now, when Kwiatek delivers Holy Communion on Sunday, the residents ask him if he will be coming on Tuesday.

"It's a beautiful, beautiful thing. It was really a lucky thought that I had, and it's turned out to be something they look forward to every week," he said.