Women Who Serve: Philadelphia

This week, we are featuring a new series to honor “Women Who Serve.” As we join in on the celebrations and traditions this Thanksgiving, our Women’s Voices writers will share daily stories of the women in their communities who have exemplified a beautiful spirit of service to others. Today, Ellen Sue Spicer-Jacobson shares the importance of volunteerism on Thanksgiving and all year round. —Ed.


Ed&JudiSamulewiczEd and Judi Samulewicz, volunteers at the St. John’s Hospice Shelter for Homeless Men

On a brisk fall day at the end of October, I rode to Philadelphia with Judi Samulewicz, a retired school nurse, and her husband, Ed, volunteers at St. John’s Hospice Shelter for Homeless Men for the needy and homeless. In the van there were several stacks of clear, plastic boxes filled with banana muffins and cupcakes that Judi had baked for the lunch program’s “Day of Kindness.” Someone had donated an abundance of bananas to St. John’s and Judi used the leftovers to make her desserts. Judi has been a steady volunteer for the last three years. When I asked her why she volunteered for this program, she gave me what she called an adage: “You will never have a perfect day, unless you do something for someone who can’t repay you.”

Kris Jaeger, Director of Development & Community Relationships, greeted me and offered a tour of the facility, which includes shelter, residence, kitchen and dining area, showers, and a room for donated clothing. My primary responsibility as a volunteer was to serve meals.

First, we served the staff members and residents at 11:30 a.m., approximately 50-55 people. That was quick and easy. At noon, we served the day guests, that is, the homeless men who streamed in from the street to receive a very large portion of food, choosing one main dish from pasta and chicken, rice and cheese, meatballs and spaghetti, sauerkraut and kielbasa, chicken drumsticks, shredded pork, etc. with side dishes of green beans, potato salad or coleslaw plus bread. . .and of course, Judi’s banana muffins and cupcakes. By the time I had served the veggies to the all the guests, my arm was aching, and so was my heart.  St. John’s serves approximately 350 noon meals every day.

St. John’s Hospice is a Catholic social services shelter for men in Center City, Philadelphia. Founded in 1963 it serves the poor and the homeless in the community, offering residential services for men transitioning from homelessness to independent living, as well as a more permanent residence for a small number of chronically homeless men. The soup kitchen is located in the St. John’s building. According to their mission statement: “Saint John’s continues to provide crucial, life-sustaining services with dignity, respect and compassion to homeless men in Philadelphia.”

Linda(staff)stirringStaff member Linda

On the day I helped Judi and Food Service Manager Anthony Willoughby serve, 60 donated casseroles were already in the three commercial ovens, with staff member Linda keeping an eye on the temperature. They were ready to be served first to the residents and staff, and then to ‘day guests,’ that is, the men with no place to go and no money for food. I used to call them street people, but after my experience, I feel there is more dignity in the term ‘day guests,’ used by the staff members.

Each large, hot casserole serves about eight men. The St. John’s website features any number of casserole recipes to aid volunteers who want to contribute.  As I stood next to Judi and Anthony, on the other side of Judi, I watched both of them spoon what seemed to me like too much food on each plate. I realized that, for some men, this may be their only meal of the day, thus, the generous portions.  My job was serving the veggies, perfect for me since I don’t eat meat and would never imagine putting so much food on their plates. First I served green beans with potatoes, then coleslaw, then potato salad, all donated food. Of course, Judi’s wonderful banana cupcakes and muffins were on the corner of every tray. As the last person on the serving line, I heard the majority of the men say, “Thank you” or “God Bless You.” I was moved by their gratitude.

While the space seemed too small to seat all the men simultaneously coming through the line, these guests, most of them still in their hats and coats, ate fairly quickly so that another man could have a seat. Everyone was polite and spoke rather softly, and if someone was on crutches or in a wheel chair, one of the staff in the kitchen took the tray and put it on the table for the guest. It was all very calm, polite, and awe-inspiring.

This year, Judi’s family has volunteered to serve Thanksgiving dinner. Area people and food purveyors in or near Philadelphia will donate the eight turkeys, 20 pounds of stuffing, 20 pounds of sweet potatoes, and 125 desserts that Judi’s family will bake and bring from home. Just as Thanksgiving is a family affair, Judi’s own children and grandchildren also participate. Giving up part of the holiday to bake and then serve strangers in their midst is, to Judi and her family, their way of giving back. If not for volunteers like Judi and her husband, Ed, the joint programs at St. John’s and The Good Shepherd would be impossible to manage. By its own estimate, Saint John’s receives more than 40,000 hours of volunteer time annually, without which they could not provide the crucial services to the most needy citizens. According to Director Kris, these volunteer hours equal 19 full-time employees.

Judi told me, as were on our way back home, with the empty cupcake containers back in the van for her next dessert day donation, “You have to love this or not do it.” For Judi, this work is a calling, and watching hungry men eat hot food cooked by hundreds of volunteers in the greater Philadelphia area is an experience I will always treasure. I owe a great debt of thanks to the staff of St. John’s and to Judi and Ed for allowing me to be part of their team for a day (and inviting me back!), opening my eyes ever wider to the gravity of homelessness and the importance of volunteerism, particularly for those who are the most needy among us.


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  • Charlene Ryan December 12, 2015 at 2:02 am

    I have known Judi and Ed for almost 15 yrs. and I worked with Judi before I moved to Florida. I am not surprised in their dedication in helping to feed these men and providing desserts for them ( for many know of Judi’s delicious desserts). Their kindness, warmth and unselfishness is what has been shown to many throughout the years. As this article states, these attributes have filtered down to their children and grandchildren. I feel that I am privileged to know this family and to call Judi and Ed, my true friends.

  • Joyce Eisenberg December 5, 2015 at 5:33 pm

    Great article and very informative. I was unfamiliar with this organization and am happy to know about the great work they do.

  • Jackie November 28, 2015 at 9:29 am

    Great article. It is so inspiring to know there are such wonderful, caring people in our area. These people give of themselves without any thought of recognition. Kudos to the author of the article for giving us “a day in the life of these volunteers”, as well as working along with them herself.