Early last Thursday morning, there was talk in the hallway about the Wednesday Soup Ladies. Speaking with the authority of someone with a long history with CHiPS, one guest said, “They used to serve us right from the pot they made the soup in! She’d lean over that steaming pot and dip into it and serve us right out there, just like that.” He paused for dramatic effect. “They’ve been here a long time, so we go way back.”
If you’re a CHiPS regular, you would know that Wednesday is soup day and that Barbara Roche and Mary Collins are the Soup Ladies. These women have been volunteers for over fifteen and twenty-three years respectively and have made soup all that time.
They typically arrive early, at 8:30 in the morning, to take stock and get ahead of the game. They are adamant about offering balanced, delicious meals that include protein, carbohydrates and vegetables. There are times when they will send volunteers to the store when key ingredients are short, paying for them out of their own pockets.
They are a well-oiled team. Barbara starts the soup stock, adding a special blend of spices that she brings from home in a little baggie. Mary sorts through the vegetables and lays them out. This way, other volunteers can start right in as soon when they arrive at 9, washing, chopping, slicing and getting the meal underway.
Barbara and Mary are both retired elementary school teachers from NYC public schools. Barbara taught kindergarten and Mary fifth grade. Bringing skills, discipline and poise honed in the classroom, they turn potentially stressful meal services into a choreographed dance. Barbara said, “A room full of volunteers is no different from one full of children. Except you hand them knives instead of scissors and tell them to try not to cut themselves.”
Barbara and Mary both heard about CHiPS from a mutual friend, joined at different times, and bonded over boiling vats of soup and steamed veggies. They became co-captains, backing each other up, and then close friends. Lunch at La Villa Restaurant in Park Slope after their shift has become a ritual.
They both love volunteering at CHiPS even through the trek from Bay Ridge has become increasingly difficult in the winter. This is despite the question mark about what they have to work with each week, how many volunteers will turn up or how many can chop a carrot. Barbara says, “It’s playing by ear, catching as catch can. It’s a lifetime of teaching children transitioned into feeding adults and helping others in need. Besides, in a world where results can be uncertain, we get tremendous satisfaction to see hungry people on a cold winter’s day, sitting down to a nutritious meal that we just cooked from scratch.”