Written by Lisa Lerner
Six years ago, Janice Lebby was an out-of-work single mother with three children wondering what to do next, when a chance conversation led her to CHiPS.
“I’d quit my job in film production and was working at a real estate office, but I knew I didn’t want to do that,” Lebby explains. “One day at church, a lady told me that Sister Mary needed a coordinator, and I decided to give it a try. Now, Sister Mary was very charming, but I must admit, the first day I walked in here, I said, I’m not coming back! It was hard work, and I was thrown right into it, and some of the guests were very demanding.”
She leans back in her chair and smiles her easy smile. It’s hard to imagine anything ruffling her. “Toward the end of lunch I was serving a man, and he said, ‘Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. I was so hungry. I’ll see you tomorrow, right?’ And I thought, oh my goodness, I have to come back tomorrow and make sure he eats!” She laughs at the memory. “What he said made the difference and I came back, and the next day was better, and I was more ready for it, and then I never left. And I’ve never had a bad day since. Things happen, but I’ve never had a bad day. It’s very fulfilling. I think I should have always been here.”
Not a job for the faint-hearted
Maybe so, but Janice’s background in film production has prepared her well for the constant multi-tasking she’s required to do as the soup kitchen coordinator at CHiPS. On any given day she’s juggling a million details in her head. When she’s not working in the kitchen or running downstairs for supplies, she’s ordering food and doing paperwork in the tiny office, and even helps out with the Frances Residence upstairs. She also is responsible for scheduling volunteers, school groups, and community food drives.
On a typical day, Janice, known affectionately to the guests as “Miss Janice,” arrives around 8:15. “In the morning, it’s usually just me steaming the pancakes, cutting pastries, and boiling eggs. Juan, our paid staff, sets up the kitchen and prepares coffee while I get bread and butter.” Everything has to be out by 9:00. If there are no volunteers, Janice must serve the breakfast, too. At the same time, she cleans up, chats with guests, and never stops running.
CHiPS only began its breakfast program a year ago, but it’s become very popular. It has grown from serving around 13 guests per day to 40. “Times are tough,” Janice sighs. “Last week, I realized that there’s a man who works, but he doesn’t have enough money for breakfast. So he comes here, he gets his breakfast, and then he goes to work.”
She feeds off the energy of the guests as much as they feed off the bagels and cream cheese. “Our guests are great people. Everyone behaves really well. We put napkins and utensils on our trays and our guests really appreciate it. That’s really the best thing when I hear, Thank you, Miss Janice, thank you.” She pauses to say her own thank you when a neighborhood deacon comes in with seven bags of warm clothing to donate.
She is especially happy when a donation comes in with treats beyond the usual fare. “One morning, Con Edison delivered us this awesome breakfast because they held a meeting and no one showed up. So we had scrambled eggs and bacon, and ham and egg pockets. Oh, it was such a gourmet breakfast!” That meal lasted two days.
The volunteers who help keep things running
At 11:30, the guests come in again and lunch is served. “Our volunteers cook with their heart,” Janice says fondly. “They love fresh vegetables, and don’t like using canned things. They want it to taste good and they do a tremendous job. I tell them, it’s a five star restaurant!” Usually the volunteers work off a planned menu, but if there are extra donations, they can make whatever they want. At present, a Russian caterer has been bringing CHiPS a lot of interesting leftovers, and Janice notes how the volunteers have been whipping them into a variety of fantastic dishes. “Our volunteers are really creative!” she brags.
During lunch, Janice is around to make sure the trays are always ready so the guests don’t have to wait. Regulations stipulate that the food must be hot, but, as Janice explains, “We’re lucky because our food doesn’t get cold. It goes out fast.” Typically, she and the volunteers will serve lunch to around 150 people each day. She makes sure the volunteers are all wearing the proper clothing and regulation hats and gloves. Inspectors come in frequently, so Janice is always on her toes.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays students from Savarian high school come to volunteer and Janice gives them a quick orientation and a little history about how CHiPS got started. She then outfits them with hairnets and gloves, and gives them assignments for the day. “They are great kids and they work hard,” Janice says. “Sometimes when they first start, a few are a little nervous and I always tell them there’s nothing that you can do wrong. You’re here, you’re serving, and the guests appreciate it. The guests sometimes start giving the kids advice, too. But I make sure the kids are relaxed, and if they aren’t, I take them out of that job and give them another job so they’re more comfortable. I really believe it has to be a good experience for you to appreciate the whole situation of the soup kitchen. It can be hard work, but it also has to be enjoyable, and when the two come together, you’ll really appreciate it – you’ll be here for six lovely years, like me!”
After lunch at 13:00, all the volunteers start cleaning up, washing dishes, and serving the last meal. Grab-and-go sandwich bags have been made and guests can help themselves to them until 16.00. On Fridays, the soup kitchen’s most popular day, Janice oversees the making of 300 pantry bags with enough groceries to tide guests over for the weekend. There is no breakfast on the weekend, but Janice makes sure that everything is there for the volunteers who come in to make and serve Saturday’s lunch. She also comes in for a couple of hours on Saturdays to make sure things are running smoothly. It’s hard for her to stay away. “It’s like a family here,” she says. “I get such a warm feeling. You can hug a volunteer. They love coming here, too. I can’t tell you the last time a volunteer didn’t show up.”
According to Janice, it’s not just the volunteers who are taking care of CHiPS and giving it that family feel. “Our guests don’t want disruptions and are really protective over their soup kitchen. They are our frontrunners. I know a lot of them by name, and I’m usually out there with them hugging and teasing and laughing. Some of them I’ve known for six years.” As if on cue, a man comes over to thank her for lunch and say goodbye. After he left, Janice explains that he walks about six miles every day from East New York to come for breakfast and lunch. And then he walks the six miles home.
The guests are loyal because they are treated with respect. At many of the city soup kitchens, if you want seconds, Janice explains, you have to go back outside and get back in line. “And they are not very nice about it.” At CHiPS, guests may have seconds without leaving the dining room, and volunteers will often give them a choice about what to eat, which is not the case at other soup kitchens. “One time,” Janice recalls, “the food wasn’t ready on time and I went out there and I said, give us five more minutes and we’ll be done, and a man said to me, Miss Janice, we’ll wait 45 more minutes if we have to.”
Experiencing homelessness first hand
Janice’s experience at the soup kitchen strikes a personal chord for another reason. When her two oldest children were infants, another resident of her apartment building had an argument with his girlfriend and set the whole building on fire. And just like that, Janice, her two babies, and her elderly mother were homeless. Because Janice’s mother was a senior, the city wanted her to go to a different shelter than Janiceand her children, but Janice refused to split the family up. “So the city wouldn’t help us out.”
Janice didn’t have any apartment insurance to help cover her costs, so she went to her assembly offices. “I said listen, I pay taxes and I work, and I can’t get an apartment.” But the housing choices they offered Janice were often unacceptable. One time, when she was offered a spot in a family shelter, she excitedly packed up her things and went to move in. “We got up the steps and a lady there looks at us and says, those doors don’t lock and you’re new – so you’re in trouble. I said to my mother, let’s go. We took our stuff and turned around and left.”
Janice received decent shelter through Catholic charities, but she still couldn’t go out after dark because there was a lot of shooting in the area. Still, it was safer than the shelters the city had provided. Finally, nearly two years later, her landlord was forced to repair the burned building, and Janice and her family went home.
“I really know the depth of how our guests feel, what it is to be displaced. It’s a very hard thing. You have to focus, because you can see yourselves swimming and you may never come up. All odds are against you. You get in one door, and another door shuts, or you’re in the middle of both doors and nowhere to go.”
That frightening experience also helps her empathize with the mothers being housed in the Frances Residence upstairs. When the young women first arrive at CHiPS, Janice tells them her story and that they are lucky because they have a stable room for a year. She explains how she was shuttled from place to place. “I say, I’m not talking to you because I know better than you, I’m talking to you because I was you.”
Janice’s eyes grow bright. Her warm voice fills with determination. “I tell them, it’s not quitting time, this is where you have to fight, this is where you have to get strong.” She firmly believes that the system will respond if a person fights hard enough. “They have to hear your voice. They sit behind a desk and process all day and they don’t know what’s going on behind them. You don’t have to be an advocate for everybody, just be one for yourself. Because once you get out of that system, you’re one less person they have to worry about.
“I always tell the young women upstairs, do what you have to do! Write letters, and call, call, call, even if you have to call every day. They may say, you’re calling again? But they’re going to know your name on that fourth day, and they’re going to say, this woman really needs something, let’s see what she wants.”
It’s clear that Janice is a person who loves people. Even though she deals with large numbers of humanity every day, she can still zero in on the individuals in a crowd.
A family affair
“I know a lot of the guests by name. A lot of them are in my neighborhood and they wave to me and my daughters in the street.” Janice feels the interaction between the homeless population and her children is “priceless” and tries to involve her children in her work whenever possible. At Christmas, her older daughter came to the party at CHiPS and handed out donated toys to disadvantaged children. From that, and other experiences, her older daughter now wants to run a soup kitchen when she grows up.
Janice’s work also inspires her children creatively. “There is an overpass near where I live and one of our homeless guests was just staring right through it like he was lost. My six-year-old son Anthony happened to be running and playing a few feet away, and my daughter snapped a photo of the two of them for a school project and called it A Different Life, A Different Time.”
She marvels at how precisely her daughter was able to capture the feeling of this man who looked like he had lost everything juxtaposed with a child who doesn’t have a care in the world. “And that’s what I see here,” she muses. “For a little while, our guests don’t have a care in the world. They are here eating and talking, and for that hour and a half, it’s beautiful: they don’t have a care in the world.”
Janice’s son Anthony also gets in on the action at CHiPS and comes every day after school. “Sometimes I have him do little jobs,” Janice grins. “He doesn’t say, I’m going to your job, he says, I’m going to work. He’ll put on his gloves and he’ll set up the cups and napkins on the tray, and I’ll reward him with a dollar. And he says, this is for work.”
Janice presses her own hardworking hands together. Her kind face fills with pride. “Anthony understands that some of the people who come here don’t have a home. He understands the value of the food here, and that the people come here because they are hungry.”