Article and Photos by Pam Vukelic

I don’t know what story her eyes would have told me if they hadn’t been hidden behind large mirrored sunglasses, but Twila’s smile was beautiful and her demeanor warm. She sat at the communal table suggesting to me she was open to chatting. And she was. Twila recently returned to Bismarck, and while she looks for a job and prepares to go to school to become a social worker, she comes to the Soup Cafe. She comes for food, and she comes for fellowship.  

Soon Paul sat down beside me and wanted me to know that Mark Meier, director and founder of the Heaven’s Helpers Soup Cafe, and his wife, Mary, are angels. With his voice cracking and his eyes welling up, Paul said the first thing he got the first time he walked into the Soup Cafe was a hug. This was so meaningful to Paul, he told me twice. He got emotional both times. He’s living in his truck now since becoming homeless a few months ago and looks forward to the upcoming changes at the Soup Cafe. Patrons who volunteer will be able to earn Soup Cafe Bucks to use toward showers, laundry facilities, and computer access.

Heaven’s Helpers Soup Cafe serves the homeless, the working the poor, the elderly, and anyone else who wants to come. It’s for anyone who needs a hand up, not a hand out. As many as 250 people per day eat soup and sandwiches served by groups of volunteers who work two-hour shifts. High school students who need volunteer hours, retirees who want to feel useful, and groups looking for a service project are all welcome.

Another patron at our communal table came from work to have lunch. Rather than go for fast food he eats here and leaves what he would have spent at a restaurant in the donation box. Not that a restaurant experience would be that much different. Once you choose your seat, a waitress comes to take your order. You are welcome to go to the dessert bar where there are numerous sweets and fresh fruits from which to choose.

As you leave, you’re welcome to help yourself to bags of bagels, bread, rolls, crackers, and even pizza sauce. The food might have been delivered to the Soup Cafe by the Great Plains Food Bank, picked up from several restaurants, or dropped off by someone who had leftovers after a funeral meal.

Dining at The Banquet, another free meal option in Bismarck, gave me a look at our community that I don’t typically see in my routine comings and goings. I stood in line at Trinity Lutheran Church on a Thursday evening waiting for the doors to open. The aroma of roasted chicken filled the air. Some guests came with salon-coifed hair; some came with all their worldly possessions on their backs. Some came on bicycles; some in Cadillacs. Some were old; some were young. Some were physically able; some not so much. Some came with tote bags tucked into their back pockets.

Like parts of a smoothly-oiled machine, The Banquet volunteers know just what to do—counting heads to be sure no seats are left empty. The troop of servers goes into action delivering, on this evening, roasted chicken breast, mashed potatoes with gravy, corn, rolls, salad, fruit, cookies, and milk. It was delicious! The crew working this shift came from Corpus Christi Catholic Church. A muti-piece band played familiar melodies.

As the guests left, they were welcome to crack out their tote bags and pick up a few items on the “to-go” table. Lots of bread products, fresh fruit, cereal, crackers, cookies, and donuts were available. In addition, “to-go” plates are prepared with any food not served during the meal. There is also a rack where give-away clothing is available.

I remember being surprised, in visiting with friends about a year ago, at how many volunteer activities they were involved in. I wasn’t surprised by their generosity but by the need there is in the Bismarck community. These are just two examples of wonderful services and opportunities for social interaction. Regardless of your status in life, you’re welcome at both of these places. Checking them out will enrich your life.  

Having just retired from more than two decades of teaching, Pam looks forward to having more time to play with grand- children, more time to read and write, and more adventures with her husband, Jim.