You can help Tricounty Family Ministries by donating on GoFundMe.
By 10:30 a.m. on nearly every weekday, the courtyard of 3349 Rivers Ave. is usually full. Sitting behind a chain link fence open to the elements, dozens of people file in. Some visit the medical clinic or stop by the clothes house — a rabbit warren of a garage where anyone needing a new garment can get one. Others inquire about addiction counseling or make an appointment to speak to the pro bono attorney, but the main draw at Tricounty Family Ministries is lunch, a free, nourishing meal served every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday to hundreds of the nonprofit's "clients."
"We call them clients because we're here to give our people dignity and provide a service," says Susan Hanshaw, of the many needy individuals who use Tricounty's services. Hanshaw, the Board Chairman of North Charleston's only soup kitchen, says that for 30 years the nonprofit has served the area's less fortunate, a region where 27.6 percent live below the poverty line. That means that they've served 45,433 meals this year alone — a minor miracle given the state of Tricounty Family's building.
In the organization's kitchen, Chef Jimmy Priest works off of donated equipment in an area smaller than kitchens in most homes. His staff — all volunteers save for two disabled — design each day's meal on the fly. Donations from grocery stores and restaurants arrive the day before, which means each day's lunch is something of a surprise. What's perishable gets placed in two ancient walk-in coolers. The rest — cereal, canned goods, crackers, etc. — are sorted in another tiny room, then placed in paper grocery bags to be handed out to clients after lunch.
As volunteers hustle around the space bumping into each other, "pardon me" and "oops" can be heard. Cozy corners is an understatement, which is why Hanshaw has invited me here. After years of operating in three small buildings behind Advent Lutheran Church, Cherokee Place United Methodist Church — just a few doors down at the corner of Rivers and Cosgrove — has offered to give its basement to the soup kitchen as its new home. There's just one problem.
"We don't have a kitchen," Hanshaw says.
"Moving into this building has been my dream for years," says Hanshaw as we tour the huge, multi-room space at Cherokee Place. In Hanshaw's eyes it's the perfect new home for Tricounty Family Ministries — there's a series of rooms for client intake, plenty of space to store food, private rooms for counseling, but the cherry on top is the church's huge Wesley Hall, a cafeteria with a vast kitchen. On first sight it looks perfect, until you zoom in on the kitchen's equipment.
"General Electric!" Charleston Grill general manager Mickey Bakst says looking at the kitchen's massive hood. "As far as I know, General Electric hasn't been used in an industrial kitchen since maybe the 1940s. I don't know how long."
Bakst is here on behalf of Feed the Need, the chef-driven organization he founded that supports area shelters and soup kitchens. In addition to the financial and volunteer assistance Feed the Need offers, each year Bakst's organization is instrumental in making sure Tricounty Family Ministries' annual Christmas Brunch goes off without a hitch. And for the past few years, due to the number of attendees, it's been served in this kitchen at Cherokee Place's hall.
"We make it work," says Bakst describing the tricky feast.
Chef Jimmy Priest prepares nearly everything next door at Tricounty's current home, then the day-of, volunteers move the food down the street just in time for the meal.
"Last year Mickey organized an amazing ice cream Sunday bar for the clients," says Hanshaw. But getting the ice cream to the brunch was no small feat. Cherokee Place doesn't have a walk-in cooler. And that's the most pressing need at present. In order to continue Tricounty's mission to offer a safe, compassionate, and inviting place for all, they need a cooler to continue feeding the 200,000-plus meals they serve each year. But as any Charleston restaurateur can attest, the price tag for a walk-in is a big one.
"We need $20,000," says Hanshaw.
And they need it quick. This year's Christmas Brunch is scheduled for December 19. On that day nearly 2,000 people will line up down Rivers Avenue for the meal. That includes some 600 to 700 children who will also attend in the hopes of seeing Santa Claus and, if donations come in on time, receiving one toy. "We try to make sure each child gets a toy and a coat," says Hanshaw.
"These children wait in line for up to a few hours," says Bakst. But once Tricounty moves into their new home, people won't have to wait outside as long. They'll be able to sit inside, where it's warm and safe. "Last year it was cold and rainy, but they waited. And when you see them get that present from Santa..." Bakst trails off overcome.
Add to that the promise of an ice cream Sunday. It might not sound like much to the average American who eats some 24 pounds of ice cream a year, but to a needy child, it's a treat rarely enjoyed.
"That's what's so special about this place," says Bakst. "They create a destination from the worst situations and give them an oasis."
Tricounty's been an oasis for Minnie Burkhardt. Waiting outside the lunch line, Burkhardt runs up to Hanshaw to give her a hug when we return to the soup kitchen. Burkhardt, who has struggled with addiction, has been visiting Tricounty on and off for years.
"People just love you here," says Burkhardt with a wide grin. "They take care of you."
Donna Wall knows both sides of that story. She came to Tricounty as a client after fleeing a 20-year abusive marriage. "I loved the people and the place," she says. She loved it so much, in fact, that Hanshaw put her to work. Today Wall runs the Tricounty's Clothes House.
"God has given me the gift of kindness," Wall says. "We see a lot here, but we can listen. Our people have enough trouble. We need to be a soft place to land."
For Hanshaw, who has run Tricounty for 25 years, those stories are what keep her going and knowing that Tricounty's landing pad is about to grow only makes her work harder.
"We don't just stabilize people, we make them self-sustainable," Hanshaw says. "We teach people to be accountable. You can't just take a class here, you have to show that you're investing in yourself." And the results of that effort are in the many people Hanshaw has seen move on into homes and jobs thanks to the help of Tricounty.
But the gateway to that sort of success, like so many things in life, begins with nourishment — a simple, healthy meal, served with dignity.
"This new home will be a place where people will feel uplifted," says Hanshaw. "We can make a difference."
And so can you. In support of Tricounty Family Ministries, City Paper has started a Go Fund Me page to raise $20,000 to install a new walk-in cooler by December. In a year that's been so divisive and in a time when people are asking, how can I make my community better, here's one simple way to help. Visit gofundme.com/tricounty-ministries-new-kitchen to donate to Tricounty Family Ministries.