By RaeAnn Jent
The snow is thick, deep and falling fast. Schools have closed. Churches are canceling evening services. Few people dare venture out on the roads. But some have no choice.
Living on the streets, they long for warmth and a hot meal. Trudging across snow-piled sidewalks in below freezing temperatures, they head to the one place they know will be open on a Wednesday night. Passing a worn-down Hispanic grocery store and a drive-thru beer barn, they arrive at the Springfield Soup Kitchen.
Located in one of the most dangerous parts of town is the two-storied, barn-shaped, red and black painted building. There’s a modest sign with “Springfield Soup Kitchen” in block letters on the west entrance. Above it, is a drawing of hands wrapped around a bowl of soup captioned “Hands of Mercy.” The front door is stained with graffiti, but the hours of operation are clearly seen.
Inside, it’s like entering another world. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee and steaming lasagna fills the air. The clinking silverware and pleasant chatter create a beautiful rhythm. One patron described it as being filled with the spirit of God.
Some people who walk through the doors have never been there before. But most come every week. The dining area is lined with comfortable wooden tables and chairs. When the main level reaches maximum capacity, the able-bodied patrons move to the upstairs dining hall.
In the front doorway, one man sits on his assigned seat. He has bed bugs and isn’t technically allowed inside. But he is still served love and lasagna like everyone else.
All patrons have their own story. Some struggle with drug addiction. Some are dealing with depression or health issues. Others once volunteered but are now in need. Many patrons feel trapped in a lifestyle of poverty. But each one has at least one thing in common: a deep admiration for Fred Stegner, known in Springfield as the “Soup Kitchen Guy.”
Stegner had never imagined running a soup kitchen. Growing up, he was hungry and poor. He remembers his mother dragging him around to relatives, asking for food. He hated begging. “It instilled in me that when I see other people, I don’t want them to be embarrassed,” he said. “I know how it feels, especially for children.”
For that reason, Stegner’s establishment operates a little differently.
“We don’t have lines like other soup kitchens,” he said. “We have everyone come in, sit down, and take their order. We wait on them and give them courtesy and respect.”
For many, the soup kitchen is a safe haven – a place where they can forget their worries for a few hours and experience God’s love. Every Monday and Wednesday, the soup kitchen has a new menu and different volunteers.
Upon moving to Springfield nine years ago, Stegner and his wife Carolyn were amazed that there was no consistent place for the homeless to enjoy a hot meal. Some churches had an occasional dinner, many had pantries, but there was no soup kitchen. So they started one.
It began with a potluck in the basement of the old St. Mary’s church. As the number of patrons grew, they needed a facility with a kitchen. Carolyn sacrificed her IRA and retirement funds to buy the current building on 830 West Main Street.
“There was nothing here,” Fred Stegner said. “Just grease and nicotine. Everything was stripped out of here.”
The couple, with volunteer help, transformed the old, filthy bar into a clean, welcoming soup kitchen. They served their first meal in the renovated facility on Thanksgiving eve of 2011. Most of the expenses came from the Stegners’ personal funds.
Carolyn played the piano and entertained guests. Everyone knew her as the “Angel of Springfield.” Within months of opening the new facility, Carolyn was diagnosed with cancer. She died in 2012, but her legacy lives on through the Springfield Soup Kitchen.
Stegner is faithful to the work he and his wife started.
“What would happen if I left?” he asks. “So many thousands of people would be hurt or suffering if we didn’t exist.”
It’s true. The Springfield Soup Kitchen has saved lives. One evening, it was 30 below zero. Six homeless men came in with nowhere to go. “Fred, if you close the doors, we’ll freeze to death,” they cried.
So Stegner opened the soup kitchen as a warming center, 24/7 for three weeks. The Red Cross provided blankets and cots. During that time, two men had heart attacks early in the morning. Another man was suffering from an overdose. The staff called 9-1-1 and the men received proper care.
Last year, Stegner recalls a weekend with 52 heroin overdoses in town. The hospital had no more naloxone kits, which is the antidote for heroin. But Stegner did, from past overdoses during dinners at the soup kitchen. When Stegner brought three kits to the hospital, the nurses were smiling. One was brought to tears because someone thought about her during that exhausting weekend.
One patron named Matt is indebted to Stegner. In 2013, he was in dire need of reconstructive surgery. Without the operation, he would lose his arm. He had no way to get to the hospital or pay for the surgery.
“Fred made it happen,” Matt said. “I have no idea how, but he did.”
Matt was working overseas for BP in 2010 during the oil explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. His radiation exposure led to a brain cancer diagnosis. He’s still awaiting lawsuit results he hopes will cover his medical expenses.
After the diagnosis, Matt was ready to give up living, but Stegner encouraged him to keep going. The radiation treatments exhaust him, but Matt keeps a positive outlook.
“A lot of people think the world owes them,” Matt said. “I believe I owe the world. I owe my community.”
“The only things Fred gets mad about are fighting and disrespect,” Matt said. “Some people have disrespect for Fred, but he still takes care of them like God takes care of His children. He’s a real nice man. If anybody says anything different, they don’t know Fred. I can’t say anything bad about him, because that’d be the biggest lie ever told.”
The only flaw Matt sees in Stegner is his health. He says it’s worse than his own. The doctors don’t know quite what’s going on, but they’re treating Stegner for Parkinson’s now.
“I wish I could be like Fred,” Matt said. “His heart is pure gold. It could be 30 below outside, and if you’re cold, he’d take off his shirt and give it to you.”
The kindness Stegner extends to others blesses him as well.
“Sometimes when I look in the eyes of the people that come here after I’ve helped them, it gives me such a good feeling,” he said. “At the end of my life, here I am doing something I never anticipated. But as I look back, I feel God has groomed me my whole life to do what I’m doing now. It’s heaven on earth to see what you can do for someone else.”