TWO DAYS a week Steve Gerard, Sr. arrives at Emmaus House at 7 a.m. to prepare the morning meal for hundreds of our most hungry citizens.
As he sorts the day-old bakery goods to put on the tables, which were contributed by several local grocery stores, he says, “we live by our donations.”
Volunteers scurry to set the circular tables for seven people each, for a family style dining experience.
“We can use more volunteers.” Gerard continues, “I love doing this, it is one of the best things that I have ever done. Helping my fellow man in a way that I found five years ago after my wife died.”
Some may think it odd to eat chicken and gravy at 8:30 a.m., but at the “diner” located at 18 Abercorn Street, the culinary fare is a welcomed meal.
- Ben Austin.
Emmaus House serves up helpings Monday - Friday to the homeless and hungry members of our community.
For the past eight years, retired high school math teacher, Steve Hill, has been volunteering five days a week.
He grins, “I am a senior volunteer, so I do the work that other volunteers don’t want to do.”
He confesses that his favorite task is doing inventory, which seems appropriate for a math teacher, as he writes the daily meal on the chalkboard for all to see.
“This is a mission activity because all people are important. They’re important to the Lord, so they’re important to me,” says Hill. “The poor and homeless are who I focus on in my mission work.”
From 6-8:30 a.m., Wayne Harden, Clinic Supervisor, is busy doing laundry dropped off the day before by clients who need clean clothes. Harden also opens the front door for people who need a shower.
As he unloads one of the two dryers he says, “this isn’t just a job, it is a calling.”
“I have a lot of heart, and I have a past too, I try to be a mentor,” Harden says, as he carefully folds the freshly laundered clothes, “it’s a plate full, it’s a ministry.”
Ariana Berksteiner, Executive Director of Emmaus House, explains, “We are here for people running on hard times, so they have the support to get on their feet.”
Berksteiner goes on to articulate many of the reasons why people fall on hard times and what our community needs to focus on as part of the solutions — such as jobs that pay a livable wage, housing first initiatives, comprehensive mental health services, just to name a few.
“We’re putting a band-aid on this festering problem, giving the dignity of a meal, a hot shower, and clean clothes.” She makes certain that everyone who enters Emmaus House feels welcome.
After all of the volunteers finish the final touches of preparing the meal and setting the tables, they huddle in a circle with staff to pray, “Let our friends feel welcome and part of something bigger than themselves,” says Rev. Kevin Veitinger.
Berksteiner opens the door and calls for people with canes and walkers first.
Many who come to Emmaus House bring all of their worldly belongings with them. To ensure that the dining area does not get too congested, Ben Austin checks their bags and gives each person a claim ticket.
Austin smiles as he greets each person by name, and chats about what items they need, such as coats.
One client asks if they’ve found a pair of size 28 waist white pants for him, an item he’s been requesting. Austin assures him that they continue to keep an eye out and will hold them for him if they get a donation that fits his request.
Rick, who comes in with a walker says, “I would pay for this food if I could. I’m a cook and food lover, this food is amazing.
There is lots of love and hugs as people greet each other and catch up on their lives while enjoying coffee with their meal. After everyone eats, seconds are available.
Eric enlisted in the Marines three days after he graduated from high school at age 17, and faithfully served for 13 years, including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, until, as he describes it, his “knee was blown off.”
Eric comes from a family with a long history of military service, and he was in Navy ROTC in high school, but decided to enlist in the Marines because he wanted to “play with big boy toys. In high school I saw that Marines got to play with the bigger toys,” he says.
“I like it here. It is nice to have fresh food,” Eric explains as he packs his clean laundry into his pack. He carries all his belongings in a camouflage backpack and sports a matching cap identifying himself as a Marine. “Once a Marine, always a Marine,” he says.
Eric was honorably discharged and currently lives outside. While he could qualify for at least 80% disability, he lost his DD214 while moving. This is an incredibly common occurrence for homeless veterans as they tend to be more transient, and it’s a huge barrier to getting much needed services.
Without a DD214 you cannot get assistance, and getting a replacement form is extremely difficult — even more cumbersome if you do not have a home address.
In 2011 Eric moved to Savannah with his fiancee, who has since passed away due to medical illness. He drove a truck for years, and lived out of the cab, but due to recent illness and a heart condition, he was unable to continue. But he hopes to get back to work eventually.
“Always be prepared. That’s what I learned in the Marine Corps,” Eric flashes a kind smile while he hoists his ruck pack and walks out the door with a full stomach.
While he cleans pots and pans, Daniel, a client volunteer five days a week, says “It’s a great way to give back. Being homeless, it gives me an opportunity to see things from the other side. Instead of eating in the dining room, I get to serve.”
As Daniel boxes up the leftover food in containers to take to homeless people who did not make it to Emmaus House that morning, he says, “we look out for each other.”
“People make decisions, good or bad, and I understand that nobody is perfect,” he explains. He encourages his fellow homeless neighbors to “be happy to wake up in the morning and try to make sure the next day is better than before — keep your head up and keep moving, that is my philosophy.”
Daniel is proud to say,“the best part is seeing everyone come in and enjoy the meal, and leave full with a smile on their face.”
After the morning meal, clothing and other necessities are distributed. The greatest needs right now are blankets, coats, sturdy backpacks, sleeping bags, tents, men’s pants, men’s shoes, and CAT bus passes. Donated items can be dropped off at Emmaus House Monday - Friday 6 a.m.- 1 p.m.
To volunteer at Emmaus House, you can go to unitedministriessavannah.org/emmaus-house and click on the “Volunteer Opportunities” tab.
If you are not able to volunteer, but still want to help, you can drop-off or drop-ship items such as 3-section plates, 8 ounce cups, napkins, utensils, and ground coffee to Emmaus House, 18 Abercorn Street, Savannah, GA 31401. A pack of 200 3-section plates can be found online distributor for about $15, and a 30 ounce can of store brand coffee for under $5 can be an easy add-on purchase while doing your grocery shopping. All donations are greatly appreciated and help Emmaus House to serve more people.