Article and photo by Sarah Thompson, Urban Alliance’s Director of Communications & Volunteer Mobilization
Katherine Montes works hard as a property manager at an apartment building in Hartford. Juggling the demands of solely caring for her four children while also tending to dozens of tenants, she takes pride in being the best mother and employee she can be.
But sometimes it isn’t easy.
Just when the future was looking bright and Montes and her husband were on the path to homeownership, things took a turn.
“My husband got sick, eventually to the point of being disabled,” she explained.
What followed was a difficult journey to make ends meet on a much lower household income.
“After he passed, my children received benefits, but in the last few years they turned 18,” she shared. “So, I thought, we can still do this. We can re-budget and we’ll just have to reign in a bit. But then when my third child turned 18, our income dropped again. It was at the point where because of inflation and my income not changing because it is a fixed income, it started to get really tight.”
Montes knew she needed a little help, but like 40% of all households in Greater Hartford, despite having a hard time ensuring that food would be on the table, her income disqualified her from federal nutrition assistance programs.
“I didn’t qualify for SNAP because of a dollar,” said Montes. “So, I knew I needed to try to find ways besides re-budgeting to save, so I could pay the light bill and put gas in the car to take my child to school; when your income shifts, it affects the way you feel. If you’re feeling like your household is coming apart, you’re going to hit depression; you can either find what works for you so you can keep walking or let it overwhelm you. There are resources.”
That’s when she stepped out and opened the door to Love Kitchen Ministry, a hunger-relief program run by her church, Glory Chapel International Cathedral.
Having previously volunteered at Love Kitchen, she knew that the ministry could help with providing hot meals and staples like fresh vegetables, milk and other food that she normally would need to purchase each week.
“I did not want my family to be without because of pride. That’s a senseless reason to have anyone go hungry,” she explained. “I wasn’t going to lie to get SNAP, because that’s not me. There was a little bit of embarrassment but I also was aware that the service is there just for what I’m going through and I’d be a fool not to utilize a service that can actually help me. Everyone has their moments. You just have to buckle down and do what you’ve got to do.”
The challenge of having enough to eat is familiar to Dr. Gladys Santiago, who runs Love Kitchen Ministry with her husband, Dr. Ramon Davila. As a child, Santiago grew up in a low-income neighborhood in Puerto Rico. She tells her life story with pride, and believes that her personal background is an asset and not something of which she should be ashamed.
“I remember the occasions when my family didn’t have rice, but thanks to the fact that we had a family who lived nearby in our community, we could ask them,” she shared. “That’s community. Because we would share with each other, we would have food on the table.”
Davila has a business degree, but his passion is cooking.
“I love to serve and I love people. In many people I see Jesus. When I serve people, I am very happy,” he said. “For us, we love to serve fresh, quality food. We always serve fresh salad with every meal, and we take into consideration options for people who are vegetarian.”
Part of Santiago and Davila’s mission is to ensure that the hundreds of people they serve each month are receiving nutritious food.
“If a person wants to eat well, that costs more. Getting fruits and vegetables is not cheap,” explained Montes. “Once I found myself at the point where I was thinking I can buy kiwi for my kids because they love kiwi, or I could buy a box of Fruit Loops for them to snack on, that would last longer. What would be cheaper? The Fruit Loops. But, guess what? Sugar. Which, in the long run, would affect their medical health. You want to make the best choice, but sometimes you don’t have the means.”
She added, “I love that Love Kitchen gives fruits and vegetables. Thank God for the natural juice and the non-fat milk, too. My son has Chron’s disease, so he’s limited on what he can eat. We go through bread very quickly, so he’s grateful for the bread we get that he can have. At the pantry, you get to walk through as if you were shopping at a supermarket and you get to choose if you want something or not, so there is no waste, which is awesome.”
What compelled Montes to reach out to Love Kitchen was the kindness and respect that she knew she’d receive there.
“I could have chosen to go to any other food pantry just so that people from my church wouldn’t know that I was finding myself at this point, but what I like about Love Kitchen is that they serve you. You aren’t standing in a line waiting to get your food. I don’t feel like I am being given a handout or that I am less than,” she explained. “I’ve been on both sides of the table, giving and receiving, sometimes both on the same day. I love the fact that they greet me with a smile. They don’t look down on anyone. I came to love Gladys and Ramon for what I saw, the work they put in and how their heart is in it. They will walk around and talk to the people. They engage. I’m not just another face.”
Montes will soon face more obstacles, when her job status changes in just a few months.
“I feel hopeful, but a little worried because my job is ending. They are selling the building where I work,” she shared. So, I see myself really needing Love Kitchen, and I’m happy it is there because of what I know I’m going to go through.”
The welcoming environment at Love Kitchen propels Montes and her children to pay it forward.
“Given what I’m going through, I still feel empowered enough to help,” she shared. “I’ve decided to volunteer for Love Kitchen because I love the place so much. All of my children have come to Love Kitchen and helped. It makes you feel good whether you are volunteering or receiving, because you don’t expect what they are giving there. They genuinely care and want to make sure you are okay. They don’t want to see people go hungry. That’s where the feel good comes in. They are doing this for me, so let me give back. I may not be able to do much but I can help in this same area since it is helping me.”
She added, “When I see that food is beginning to fall short I have the security of knowing that soon I will visit Love Kitchen. My fears and worries are diminished with this truth. When I visit Love Kitchen I walk out feeling better than when I walked in. This feeling follows me and affects those I interact with. Interacting with the people who are receiving and giving just makes me feel better. Who wouldn’t want to be part of such a good thing?”
Love Kitchen will be hosting a free community Thanksgiving meal on Friday, November 16 from 5:00-6:00pm at Glory Chapel, 221 Greenfield Street, Hartford. Click here to view a full schedule of food pantry and community meal services offered by Love Kitchen.
Urban Alliance has provided training, tools, grant funding and supplies to help Love Kitchen Ministry carry out their vision to provide a service of love and mercy. To learn more about Beyond the Basics, Urban Alliance’s initiative to help churches and parachurch organizations reach and serve people who are lacking food, clothing or housing so they meet their basic needs and gain greater stability in their lives, click here or contact Angela Colantonio, Urban Alliance’s Director of Implementation, Health & Basic Needs Initiatives.
Click here to support Beyond the Basics. 100% of your gift will go towards helping people experience hope, get the help they seek and achieve positive transformation in their lives.
Montes (top row, left), Santiago (front row, fifth from left) and Davila (top row, second from right) with the others from the volunteer crew at Love Kitchen Ministry.
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