“OK, hands washed, glove up, and I’ll get you right to work,” Paula Dana briskly tells Skyline High senior Afshin Farokhrani. It’s the Tuesday lunch shift at Food Gatherers’ Community Kitchen, and Dana, her long brown hair pulled back in a clip, a yellow shirt topping comfy black leggings, hoop earrings dangling, soon has Farokhrani and six other volunteers cutting up fresh pineapples and cantaloupes, loading a beverage cart, and breaking down cardboard boxes for recycling.
Run by Food Gatherers and housed inside the Delonis Center homeless shelter, the Community Kitchen dishes up hot meals seven days a week, 364 days a year. While many of today’s lunch guests live at Delonis while looking for permanent housing, Dana points out that meals are open to “anyone who walks through those doors.”
Dana, fifty-two, is one of two full-time staffers who prepare and serve the meals with the help of several hundred volunteers. Farokhrani is volunteering as part of a social justice unit in his humanities class, but church groups are the heart of the operation. For example, Dana says, “First Pres”–volunteers from the First Presbyterian Church–will cook and serve the next day’s dinner.
Dana is “a great combination of part drill sergeant, part social worker, and part foodie,” says Food Gatherers CEO Eileen Spring, who heads the massive food rescue and food bank operation that, via 150 agencies, feeds Washtenaw County’s hungry. Dana plans menus around the donated food (700 pounds of meat arrives weekly), and she’s responsible for running a kitchen that meets county health department standards–“wash, rinse, sanitize” is one of her mantras. That’s especially critical for this population, Spring notes, because many of the guests have compromised immune systems. Some days Dana works both the lunch and dinner shift, starting at 9:30 a.m. and going until 7 p.m. Careful planning is crucial: she might need, for example, to have 100 pounds of meat thawed at a time.
Spring recruited Dana after hearing about her volunteer work for First Baptist Church’s dinner program. But Dana’s roots in social justice run much deeper, to the villages of central Africa, where she served with the Peace Corps for several years. That history of “understanding grassroots poverty,” Spring says, helped Dana “embrace our mission and culture.”
Dana grew up in Adrian and Tecumseh and went to Michigan State for a veterinary tech certificate. She later added an associate’s in applied science and a BA from Siena Heights in Adrian.
After school, she says, she was ready to do something “adventuresome.” The Peace Corps, she says, “gobbled me up right away” when they saw that vet tech degree. “I had a go-with-the-flow attitude,” she says. “I told them ‘I’ll go wherever you want me to go.'” So she was sent to a mud hut in the middle of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).
There, she worked with cattle farmers to improve livestock practices–leaving from her hut by motorcycle on a Tuesday and returning on a Friday, visiting a circuit of villages in between. She taught feeding techniques, animal husbandry, and delivered meds for the cattle. To be “a young white woman from across the world” working with men in “the middle of nowhere” was life-changing. “The toughest job you’ll ever love,” she says, quoting a Peace Corps recruiting pitch. She loved it so much that she extended her commitment to work with hundreds of volunteers from five different tribes to build a hydro-powered mill–including “a mini-Panama canal” to deliver water–that processed corn, millet, and other grains for 10,000 villagers. “I hope it is still there in some capacity,” she says, lamenting the violence and extreme poverty that now plague the area.
A year after returning home, Dana was drawn back to Africa, this time with a church group. She spent two years in Tanzania, aiding women in small animal husbandry practices. It was in Africa, she says, that she developed her life philosophy: adapt, innovate, and overcome. “It’s going to be my next tattoo,” she declares.
When Dana returned to the States in 1994, she decided to trade vet tech work for social services. But it wasn’t easy to find a good match; she worked at Pier 1 and Arbor Farms before landing a job at Catholic Social Services, where for three years she oversaw its Retired Seniors Volunteer Program. When that job ended, she worked briefly at Panera Bread before joining Food Gatherers in 2003.
The common thread, she says, is hunger: “I was helping people feed themselves through their livestock … now I’m helping people feed themselves” at the kitchen. The job is physically and emotionally demanding (Spring says Dana’s only taken two sick days in ten years), and Dana says she requires some “quiet space” to step away and “recharge.” She relaxes by riding her motorcycles. She owns two Ducati Monsters–Italian-made “muscle bikes”–and takes longer trips when she can. She also tends a small flower garden at her Ypsilanti condo.
During Tuesday’s lunch, Dana circles the kitchen in perpetual motion–pointing, redirecting, and repeating the same knife safety and cleanup drills she’s gone over countless times before. “Doin’ a great job!” she says, encouraging the volunteers who are serving up chicken noodle soup, grilled cheese sandwiches, and cucumber salad. After kitchen cleanup, meal tickets are counted, and Dana announces they’ve served 105 people today. In another hour or so staff will welcome the next group of volunteers to start preparations for dinner.
In a job with so many variables and so many personalities, Dana says, “patience is a virtue–it must be prayed for daily.” But, she emphasizes, the volunteers are “the best, because they all want to be here, and they come ready to work.”
Despite the economic upturn, the Community Kitchen saw its highest numbers ever in January, serving 8,467 guests. That’s up fifteen percent from the past couple years, and the kitchen is likely to serve its one millionth plate of food sometime in early 2014. “We do not know for sure but we attribute the spike to the cold and harsh winter as well as our suspicion that the economic upturn is not ‘trickling’ down to those we serve,” Eileen Spring emails. “Even people who have jobs now are often under employed working for low wages … with no benefits while food costs continue to rise.”
Statistics aside, Dana prefers to focus on the faces of the guests–some of whom are the same as when she started here a decade ago. “That could so easily be us walking through those doors,” she says, “or our family members.”