BRATTLEBORO—Outside, a cold autumn rain sneaks under coat collars and into shoes. It turns the downtown glossy and empties the streets as pedestrians seek warm shelter.
It’s warm inside the gathering hall of the First Baptist Church. The aroma of hot dogs and baked beans fills the kitchen.
“The beans are really bubbling,” team leader Jeanne Deyo says, pointing to the stove. One of her four team members attends to a pot of baked beans so large it covers two burners.
Deyo continues mixing an equally large pan of pasta salad with vegetables. Resting on a nearby table: a tray of cupcakes, each decorated with a piece of candy corn, and a bowl of apples.
The team members chat. Dinner comes together seamlessly, the result of the team having worked together for six or seven years, Deyo says, but this meal is different.
On this night, Oct. 28, Grace’s Kitchen and her volunteers are about to serve their final dinner.
It’s time, Deyo says. “I really think it’s run its course.”
Eleven years ago, Deyo and her grandmother, Grace Thomas Deyo Wood, started the midweek community meal. Grace’s Kitchen welcomed everyone at the evening suppers.
When it started, it was the only evening community meal in town.
The first rule of Grace’s Kitchen?
“If you would not serve it to your family, do not serve it here,” Deyo says.
And the second rule: meals are served upon real dinnerware with real cutlery.
“I thought there was a dignity to serving on real plates,” she says.
Many hands, light work
The kitchen teams got really good at cooking kale, Deyo says, laughing.
According to Deyo, the late Melinda Bussino, founder and executive director of the then–Brattleboro Area Drop In Center — now Groundworks Drop In Center — also attended First Baptist Church.
People would ask after Wednesday meals if they could sleep in the church. These requests led to the Drop In Center starting its seasonal shelter.
The majority of Grace’s volunteers came from outside the church’s congregation. Deyo considers many of the regular diners and fellow cooks her friends.
“I did not do it by myself,” Deyo says.
On this last night, Deyo busies herself — mixing the salad, setting out the dinnerware, greeting the early diners seeking a dry place until the 5:30 meal — without muss or fuss.
Transitions and change surround Grace’s Kitchen, she adds. It’s a good time to end the meal. She will take stock once the dust settles.
The congregation of the First Baptist Church — Deyo is a lifelong member — has voted to sell the 19th century brick building.
This is the also the final winter that the Seasonal Overflow Shelter (SOS) will use the church.
Deyo adds that Grace’s Kitchen served all community members looking for a meal. In recent years, however, it became associated with the SOS. Last season, Grace’s served an average of 30 people while the shelter operated. Its summer numbers dropped to around a dozen.
The SOS will open within a week or two and will take over serving dinners on Wednesday. And Deyo has already committed to prepare food at future SOS dinners.
But it won’t be Grace’s Kitchen, she says.
The last supper
Deyo calls to diners waiting at long tables draped with bright patterned tablecloths. They gather with Deyo and her team members around the serving table.
She says a prayer. Her voice chokes.
“I didn’t think it would hit me so hard,” Deyo says. “I know you. I know all of you.”
Frank, who didn’t want to give his last name, moves a chair to the head of his regular table. He habitually sits under a painting of Jesus surrounded by children.
“This was my spot,” Frank says, pointing to the floor below the painting.
He’s had housing for approximately three years, but he still attends Grace’s Kitchen.
A tall man who wears a military-style cap and a bright orange-patterned jacket, Frank says that when he was homeless, he slept under that painting in the winter.
“This town has done a great deal for me,” he says.
If Frank ever wins Powerball, “I’m going to remember places like this.”
People think they can’t trust people who are homeless because they’re homeless, Frank says, and that’s not fair. “There’s good and bad in everything.”
Most of the homeless are more like family to Frank. More loyal, he adds.
Grocery money buys milk or orange juice, he adds. It’s cheaper to stretch the budget and “eat out” at community meals.
“Sad to see it going,” he says.
Frank is quiet; he says he likes to keep to himself.
But he chats a little during dinner. He used to live in Springfield. He’s been sober for 24 years. At his first community meal when he arrived in Brattleboro in 2009, they served lamb.
They treat the homeless like this? Frank remembers thinking, feeling surprised.
When asked what he likes about Grace’s Kitchen, Franks says, “Just a place to pop into on Wednesday night.”
His eyes redden. He blinks.
Deyo says Frank was one of the first people she met at Grace’s.
“Just getting into an apartment does not solve all the problems,” such as having money left over for food, she says.
Grace’s Kitchen started 11 years ago, serving meals every other week. The cooks opened the doors expecting half a dozen people; 12 people attended.
Soon, they began serving the meals weekly.
Grace’s Kitchen has served community members who were homeless. It has served elders and young families alike. And it’s served people simply passing through town, Deyo says.
“Or people who don’t like to eat at home alone,” adds Deyo, herself a mother and grandmother. “It was the fellowship.”
She remembers one night someone asking her how she knew the kitchen served the people it intended to serve.
On cue, an elderly couple — she wearing a fur coat and a rock of a diamond ring — walked through the door, Deyo recalls.
“There’s your first clue,” she said at the time. Her response: It’s unlikely this couple needs a free meal, but Grace’s will feed them all the same.
Handing food across the table taught Deyo much about how people manage the spectrum of insecure housing to homelessness.
“You never know where somebody’s come from to get where they are,” she says.
‘Times are really tough’
A personal lesson Deyo says she learned came during Christmas many years ago.
As she walked past the bus shelter on Main Street, a “scruffy” man on the bench called her name. She hesitated.
Then she remembers asking herself: Wait, are you only okay with “with them” if there’s a table between you?
Deyo sat and chatted with the man.
A couple of weeks before Grace’s final dinner, Deyo says, a young twentysomething couple came to the church as the team was cleaning up. New to town, they apologized for missing the serving time.
After she and fellow team members loaded the couple up with food, Deyo then answered their questions about where they might find other meals during the week and where in town it is safe to sleep outside.
The young man started to cry, says Deyo. He told her, “Times are really tough.”
Perusing her memories of Grace’s, Deyo says, “The rewards far outnumber the frustrations.”
Deyo shakes her head. She’s seen all levels of poor, broke, and down-and-out pick up a plate at Grace’s.
“There’s no reason in the United States of America people can’t have enough to live on and still have money left over to buy their kids an ice cream cone,” she says. “It does not make sense how we’re asking people to live.”