By Nadia Maria Smith

CS&T Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA – Yvette Palmer recently returned from a trip to Egypt. The St. Cyprian parishioner explains that despite the hardships posed by the economic crisis here, people in developing countries are hurting even more.

Which is why it’s important to keep a grateful heart and to contribute to programs like Catholic Relief Services Operation Rice Bowl, she said. Palmer was the first presenter at the annual CRS Lenten speaker series at the Archdiocesan Office Center in Philadelphia March 4.

“I don’t think they have mass government programs in Egypt to help people like we do. People have to fend for themselves and work as a family,” she said. “It makes you grateful that you are living in a country that can provide you with some help like our soup kitchens and government.”

Palmer is the coordinator for St. Cyprian’s Helping Hands Soup Kitchen and Food Cupboard, and she says she has seen an increase in people seeking food assistance in recent months.

“We are seeing more and more people as they lose their jobs or are underemployed and can’t make ends meet,” she said.

The parish runs its soup kitchen on the last Saturday of the month. They serve a hot, homemade meal and hand out a bag of groceries to each visitor.

The soup kitchen has been in existence for about a decade helping folks get back on their feet, but it couldn’t run without the dedicated help of many volunteers, Palmer said.

“I often think of the loaves and fishes Bible story. The Apostles didn’t think they could feed thousands of people with only a few loaves and fishes, but they brought it to Jesus and He multiplied it. That’s how I feel,” she said. “Sometimes we only have a little bit of food and try to make it stretch. We have so many obstacles sometimes … I have fantastic people working with me and we all pull together to get these fabulous meals out that are made with so much love. How it comes together is God’s miracle, that is all I can tell you. It takes a lot of people’s help and God puts it together.”

One of those volunteers is Dennis Barnett, who initially went to Helping Hands in need of assistance.

He appreciated the warmth and love he received there, and when his situation turned around, Barnett, a member of the parish, wanted to give back.

Now in his eighth year of service, Barnett works at the food bank twice a week and helps at the soup kitchen once a month.

“We have a wide range of people come in – from the elderly to people with families,” he said. “We hug and kiss them and share prayer before we have a meal. It’s a warm place to be. People come all year long and we never close the door. We do it from our heart because we care. Once you’ve lost something and people help you, it feels good to give back.”

With the start of Lent, Palmer encourages Catholics to be in solidarity with the poor, hungry and homeless.

“It’s obvious by the way things are going any of us are a paycheck [away] from being hungry and out on the street,” Palmer said. “Fasting, prayer and volunteering are all ways to be in solidarity. With volunteers sometimes you get a lot of help and at other times you get little – so you can go volunteer at a soup kitchen anywhere. Give up some time, say some prayers, put something in the rice bowl and make a contribution.”

Palmer has seen a decrease in food donations, which she hopes will turn around soon. She is working on Mayor Nutter’s hunger task force to find ways to increase the depleting resources. Yet, despite the obstacles, Palmer is hopeful.

Barnett also offers hope to those he serves – as someone who was once in their shoes. “Our economic situation isn’t going to last forever,” he said. “This, too, will turn around because nothing lasts forever. Once you give up hope everything is lost.”

The next CRS Lenten series speaker will be Estela Reyes-Bugg from the Cardinal Bevilacqua Center in the Kensington area of Philadelphia. She will speak about her experiences in Honduras at noon on March 11 at the Archdiocesan Office Center at 222 N. 17 St. For more information on the series, contact Anne Ayella at (215) 895-3470 ext. 717.

CS&T staff writer Nadia Maria Smith may be reached at or (215) 965-4614.