If loved ones need to find Bensalem’s John Kirby or his mother Rose on any given Monday evening, they know exactly where to look.
Every single week, the two spend several hours volunteering at Caring for Friends, headquartered at 12271 Townsend Road in Northeast Philadelphia. Here, they volunteer their time preparing and packaging meals for the homebound, homeless and hungry throughout the greater Philadelphia region.
“It’s a nice opportunity,” said Rose, who recently celebrated her 86th birthday. “You feel like you’re giving something and really, it’s just your time. I made nice friends and I look forward to going on Monday. I make sure I don’t plan anything or make any appointments so I know I’m going to be available.”
Rose, a mother of seven, got involved in 2020 with the nonprofit, which tirelessly works to provide food and friendship to seniors, kids and adults through a homebound meals program, homeless outreach and a food bank. Much of Caring for Friends’ efforts is accomplished by dedicated volunteers like the Kirbys.
The family’s involvement began prior to the COVID-19 pandemic through Kirby’s place of work, Philadelphia Insurance Companies, where he serves as a vice president.
“The company always talks about giving back to the community and they actually pay their employees seven and a half hours of volunteer time. So if you wanted to take a day off and plant trees for the arborist society or something like that, you can go ahead and do that,” said Kirby. “I did my volunteering at Caring for Friends and I had a good time with the camaraderie.”
Kirby kept returning, even completing some spackling for a renovation project. Through the pandemic, Kirby continued to show up, lending his talent and passion for cooking to the kitchen. Not only did he eventually inspire his mom to get involved, but also friends and colleagues from both near and far. His daughter even completed community service there.
“I constantly look for other people. I brought my neighbor across the street and all my contacts through the insurance industry, the vendors I work with. It’s kind of just taken off,” said Kirby. “I have people who will say, ‘Hey, I’m flying in to come see the Eagles game. I’m gonna stay overnight and come help you cook on Monday.’ I’ve had people drive all the way from Penn State, people from New York City have driven down. They love it. After they’re done, they say they want to do it again.”
On any given night, volunteers can make between 800 and 1,300 meals. Sometimes, when there are more hands on deck, upwards of 2,000 meals can be produced.
Kirby, who serves as shift co-lead on both Mondays and Tuesdays, ensures that everyone present is working hard. Whether it’s getting more vegetables from storage or taking out the trash, there’s always something to do.
“We get there and just jump right in,” said Rose. “Whatever needs to be done and we just keep going.”
Plus, after the shift, which runs from 5 to 8 p.m., the volunteers are able to kick back, relax and revel in a job well done.
“There’s actually a coworker, I don’t work directly with him, but he actually works for my sister company, he and his wife are regulars and bring a bottle or two of wine,” said Kirby. “After we’re done mopping the floors, we’ll enjoy each other’s company. It’s like an extended family.”
These volunteers are continuing the legacy of Rita Ungaro-Schiavone, who launched the nonprofit (formerly Aid for Friends) in 1974. While volunteering at the YWCA, she discovered a deep need for food and friendship, and began delivering home-cooked meals to the homebound. Before feeding her own family, Ungaro-Schiavone would fill up a tray and bring it to Minnie, one of the nonprofit’s very first clients.
Almost 50 years later, Caring for Friends has grown to a network of 10,000 volunteers and 200 community partners, including churches and organizations like Newtown’s Salute 2 Service. Many of these partners have freezers on-site, allowing those in need to pick up meals directly. Regarding the meals that the Kirbys prepare at Townsend Road, these are picked up by volunteers and delivered right to homebound individuals.
Additionally, if residents have extra food in their home and want it to go to someone in need, just as Ungaro-Schiavone once did, they can coordinate with Caring for Friends to make this happen.
Caring for Friends also distributes snack packs to area children and those facing homelessness. These encompass items like juice, granola, applesauce, etc. Ingredients for meals and snack packs are acquired thanks to donations and partnerships with Acme and other grocery stores.
The nonprofit also continues Ungaro-Schiavone’s mission to provide a sense of friendship. Schools and volunteers often make “caring cards,” which are placed in the meals/snack packs.
Stef Arck-Baynes, Caring for Friends’ managing director, communications and corporate relations, explained, “A lot of the people who are facing hunger are also facing loneliness. That can cause some really severe health problems, not just mental health, but also things like dementia and heart disease. So having those caring cards, which seems like not that big a deal, is actually something that our homebound clients really appreciate. Getting a little note, that’s a reminder that somebody is thinking about them.”
Since people are in need 365 days a year — not just around the holidays — volunteers are always needed at Caring for Friends, which accepts ages 8 and up. Kirby said of his experience, “It keeps you grounded. It makes you realize how lucky you are and it’s a good feeling to help others in need. I want to leave this world at some point in a better place than when I came into it.”
Visit caringforfriends.org for more information.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org