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Cameron Mack

The Heart of Community Support: Exploring the Impact of Kent Social Services

“We’ve had all kinds of people who come here to be together” - Annette Dowling (December 11th, 2023 Food security ahead of the holidays in Portage County Sydney Brown from TV2 & KentWired)

Kent Social Services (KSS) is a cornerstone in our community, dedicated to “feeding the body and spirit of vulnerable people in the community through the provision of hot meals, groceries, and a caring attitude.” The building, which previously housed the L&K Restaurant, has a long history of serving food to the community. KSS began in 1920, but the "hot meal" program started in 1990, thanks to Sister Jordan Haddad. She and volunteers operated hot meals and pantry orders from various donated spaces around town. Eventually, Family & Community Services merged with Sister Jordan’s programs, purchasing 1066 S Water St. as a permanent home. Today, KSS serves over 20,000 meals and distributes over 100,000 pounds of pantry items annually.

KSS provides support and programs to community members indiscriminately and freely. The two primary programs are the pantry order program and the daily hot meal program. Residents of Kent can apply for the pantry program by submitting a form of ID and proof of address. Once registered, they can call or walk in during operational hours…  twice a month to schedule and pick up a grocery cart full of nutritious food. The hot meal program is available to anyone who comes in between approximately 11:30 AM and 12:15 PM. Each day’s meal begins with a short announcement and a brief moment of silence for those who appreciate it. Guests then line up to receive a tray of food, with each volunteer acknowledging them and confirming their preferences. Guests are never forced to consume anything offered and can help themselves to coffee, tea, and other beverages. If food is left over, guests are welcome to have seconds and even take some home.

"How has the food assistance program helped you and your family?"

“I had a heart surgery. I was moving very slowly” Logan shares that a friend and housemate brought him to KSS at this time “I think it helped a lot… The socializing… the food assistance. Probably more than I could have done at first. Preparing food. More balanced meals and recovering… For a while all I could do was eat and sleep” Logan emphasizes that Kent Social Services did not just provide him food, a safe place to rest, and a social atmosphere. “It was more than one element”.

KSS receives some funding from Family and Community Services but relies heavily on donations of goods and volunteer time from the community. The Akron-Canton Regional Food Bank provides a massive amount of the food and materials. Despite having few employees, KSS operates thanks to hundreds of community volunteers annually. Below is an image of volunteers from last winter. They came for a day and they were from the PBS Western Reserve radio station in Kent, Ohio.  

KSS’s mission extends beyond feeding the hungry. Program Director Marquice Seward, Community Outreach Manager Rev. Christie Anderson, the Executive Board of Directors, Family & Community Services, the Kent Fire Department, BrightView, Parta, volunteers, and many other local organizations provide onsite resources, health checks, information, and networking. Pamphlets throughout the building offer information on community programs and benefits. Volunteers or employees are usually available to assist with various needs, ensuring safety and vitality are top priorities.

I asked Annette Dowling if she could answer me a few questions regarding her personal experience at Kent Social Services. She has been a volunteer throughout her whole life. She also has volunteered with KSS for 15+ years and counting.

So I asked "What motivates you to volunteer with Kent Social Services, and what impact have you seen from your work in the clients and in your own life"?

“My motivation is that volunteering in this setting is a natural continuation of my life's work. I have always worked directly in communities providing advocacy, information, nursing care, child care and love to marginalized populations. In retirement,  it provides the opportunity and structure that I desire to live a full life. First and foremost,  this agency helps to fulfill a basic need, momentary freedom from hunger. It also works to provide a safe, welcoming, respectful environment for people to dine and socialize. For me, it provides a safe place to meet and interact with amazing people” Annette said.

KSS also offers programs beyond food and housing security. Children's holiday programs like Easter Basket and Christmas Present Donations, workshops for community involvement, and activities for older youth such as cooking, serving, and gardening are all part of KSS’s outreach. The garden, maintained with hundreds of hours of volunteer labor, provides fresh vegetables, flowers, and fruit for guests.

"How have the child and family services at Kent Social Services helped your family"?

“When I didn’t have an address they let me receive mail here” J says. He adds that they do this for a lot of people in need of an address to receive vital mail. Sometimes clients cannot get what they need simply without a mailing address and/or phone number. It can be a huge disadvantage for many.

“A girl I know got in trouble… She came down for christmas time. She had no money to get gifts for her kids. She’s got twins and an older one…” As he tells me she received gifts for her children that year from KSS. “They gave [anonymous client] a haircut”. Logan also shares and notes the client who received the haircut had a legitimate need for it and KSS provided that need. Kent Social Services also helped this client find a home after being homeless for many years. They also helped outreach and provide a full set of furnishings for his new home. Despite rules and proper safety the homeless run out of places to crash when they’re ready to sleep. For quite a few years this client was left unbothered at night to rest safely under the exterior overhang of the building.

Logan also shares that KSS helped a client find a funeral dress at no cost. He says “They go the extra mile for some people. I’m sure it’s not written in their charter ‘we gotta find funeral dresses for people’. Think of all the volunteers down here too”. He shares that a previous volunteer he knows of may have been able to use his experience at KSS to help him get a job at Dunkin Donuts.

Seniors benefit greatly from the two RTA stops outside the building, with special transportation vehicles for those with mobility issues. The City of Kent Fire Department’s Paramedicine Provider, Sara Slanina, makes regular visits, offering medical advice, blood pressure checks, and more at no cost. This service, along with other healthcare and mental health support from local agencies, helps clients without requiring them to travel or pay extra.

"What has been your most rewarding experience working with the senior’s at Kent Social Services"?

Annette responded, “The most rewarding experience in interacting with the seniors that volunteer or are guests is to learn from them. These folks have a wealth of knowledge and fascinating life stories”.

Annette also shared in a video interview and news story back in December of 2023. The story is titled Food security ahead of the holidays in Portage County produced by Sydney Brown of TV2 and KentWired.

“I don’t think they [initial guests and the community] grasp that this is a community of important people. I think they think of it as ‘oh these are poor people going for a hot meal’ it’s not that at all. We’ve had college professors. We’ve had all kinds of people who come here to be together”

"In what positive ways have services at Kent Social Services impacted your health and well-being"?

“When I came down here my life started getting better”. Another client, J, shares that his experience with KSS has helped him “Stay afloat” by being provided food assistance.

The guests & clients of KSS know all too well about the little things KSS volunteers and staff provide with no charge. Also typically outside of KSS’s expected services. Volunteers and guests have lots of personal stories and experiences of others they’ve watched the hands of KSS touch.

"Can you share a success story that demonstrates the effectiveness of Kent Social Services?"

“Coming here helped me connect with the city better. Get to know people and such” J can find it difficult to socialize and make friends but he expressed that KSS also provided him the tools and opportunity to make a few friends which he still talks to regularly and has lunch with some of them still.

The interconnectedness that Kent Social Services has to offer is so abundant

“What about Tim? The American veteran. They let him stay here in his car.” Tim sadly passed away in recent years from age and poor health. He was in a bad way towards the end of his life. Though there wasn’t much anyone could do to save Tim and extend his life; Kent Social Services provided him a home so to speak. Towards the last few months and weeks leading up to his passing a long-standing client of KSS & previous board member of many years helped Tim find temporary housing at Freedom House (A local emergency rehousing program) where they then took him to the hospital to try and help with his health. I believe the graceful spirit of Kent Social Services is the type of thing that has the potential to extend the lives of any individual in our community. Some things that just don’t come by easily.

I want to give you, the reader, a taste of life at Kent Social Services.

"What is one story that stands out to you from your time volunteering with Kent Social Services"?

“The story that stands out is a Christmas one. One day of Christmas week, the kitchen crew were really running late in preparing the 11:30 meal. The dining room was FULL and people were getting edgy, waiting for their food. Soon, the guests were getting very vocal about the delay. One gentleman, who was about 97 at the time, pulled a harmonica out of his pocket and began playing Silent Night. Everyone became quiet or began softly singing, patiently waiting. Incredible” Annette graciously shared.

My personal experience with Kent Social Services began almost six years ago, introduced by a friend who brought me to lunch there. I quickly realized the importance of KSS to its clients and the extensive support it provides. I could enjoy a hot meal, take home bread, and sign up for a monthly grocery cart full of food—all for free. The only requirement for a pantry order was to provide ID and proof of residency in order to track how many people the food bank serves. Without the people-served number, there are no “hungry people”. That is why it’s important to count. This also means more outreach to hungry people, increasing “people-served”, can prompt more funding and donation efforts by the Akron-Canton Regional Food Bank. Accuracy and fulfillment allow for these programs to exist in the first place.

The garden offers a place for leisure and activity, and the indoor dining space is welcoming, with TV, social opportunities, art, and outdoor seating. An open forum between clients and administration allows for seamless relationships and comprehensive support for people of all ages, sizes, and races.

This is also a call to action. Kent Social Services a few years ago received a large expansion of facilities and programs which means they need even more volunteers and donations to keep up with the needs and demands of our city. So it is important every reader of this article recognizes Kent Social Services, makes a visit, and even further can offer a donation of food and/or your time. Our people need it. Their lives depend on you and Kent Social Services. KSS is the only family, connection, and source of needs many of our community members have; so mine and your engagement are imperative to the success and longevity of the entire program. Kent Social Services is located at 1066 South Water Street, Kent, Ohio 44240. If you would like to make a donation please stop by the pantry office anytime during operational hours. Operational Hours are Monday-Friday 9am to 3pm. The organization also follows the national holiday calendar that F&CS uses so on some national holidays they are closed in observation of said holiday.

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