Kent Social Services’ home of 18 years at 1066 South Water Street is a beacon of hope for the city’s most vulnerable residents. But for the three employees and hundreds of volunteers who operate Kent’s only free hot meal site and food pantry, it’s a cramped and timeworn building that simply can’t keep pace with the never-ending demand for its services.
For the first time in its history, KSS—a program of the non-profit Family & Community Services Inc.—is launching a capital campaign to raise funds for a renovation and expansion project that would not only allow the agency to reach even more hungry households, but also to offer educational and recreational programs for clients. Those clients include people like Misty, a mother who was disabled due to an accident at work. “My teen daughter and I are living on my disability. If it wasn’t for the good graces of Kent Social Services, I would not be able to feed my child,” she explained.
And Anne, a widow of seven years. “The stock market wiped out our savings, which left me alone and without the income we had saved and worked for all our lives. Without this center, I would not have food from month to month. I thank God for this center and people who care,” she said.
Christie Anderson, KSS community outreach manager, said that since Kent has no senior citizen center, many area seniors while-away their days in the dining room. Other folks spend hours there simply to escape the heat of summer or the cold of winter. But for a small shelving unit of donated board games and two bookcases of donated volumes, there is little to occupy their minds. And there’s no space for anything else—particularly programming. "That’s a shame", Anderson said. By tapping into resources available through Kent State University and other local partners, a variety of programs could be offered—from social and recreational programs for senior citizens to nutrition, cooking, and gardening classes for low-income families to social enterprises that train clients for the food service industry while generating some income to help KSS become more economically sustainable.
History and Need
The nondescript building, constructed c1967 by the LK Restaurant chain, was purchased by F&CS in 2000 to give KSS its first permanent home, allowing the then-fledgling agency founded by Sister Jordan Haddad to finally consolidate its hot meal and food pantry programs under one roof.
The building, which had been vacant for some time, underwent a modest renovation that included new restrooms, replacing ceilings and worn carpet, the creation of two small offices, and installation of new exterior doors for greater wheelchair accessibility. Little has changed since then—except for the ever-growing demand for services.
While the agency’s 3,700-square-foot facility is being used as efficiently as possible, its two primary missions—serving hot meals every weekday (plus three Sundays monthly) and distributing groceries through the Choice Pantry—cannot be performed simultaneously.
Since the food pantry shelving units are located along a dining room wall behind the serving-line counters, the pantry must close during meal times. The expansion project would separate the hot meal and pantry spaces, enabling a greater number of working poor clients to access the pantry during their lunch hour. And with each area having its own entrance, KSS could truly achieve confidentiality for pantry recipients, who are required to meet federal income eligibility requirements in order to receive three bags of basic grocery staples once monthly.
On average, KSS serves 65 hot meals each operating day, but there are times when all 76 dining room chairs are occupied and more are needed. The renovation project would increase seating to accommodate 96 diners, and provide the much-needed space for afternoon programs.
KSS served nearly 21,000 hot meals and distributed more than 8,500 bags of groceries in 2018. It takes an enormous amount of manpower—and much more space than is currently available—to collect, sort, store, and distribute the 145,400 pounds of non-perishable food donated just last year alone.
Marquice Seward, KSS’ full-time program manager, coordinates scheduling an army of 400 volunteers who provide more than 12,000 hours of service annually. All of their work is done in the meager 500 square feet
of building allotted for the kitchen, walk-in coolers, and storage areas for non-perishables.
“We utilize every inch of space in this building,” said Seward while stepping up against a wall to make way for a volunteer pushing a grocery-laden cart. The facility’s work areas are beyond cramped. Large shelving units line nearly every usable wall, reducing walking space to narrow pathways.
And it’s not just food on those shelves. KSS also distributes donations of other items needed by those struggling financially: personal hygiene products, diapers, baby food, socks, winter hats and scarves, pet food, and more. The agency provides school supplies to low-income families at the start of each academic year; generous boxes of food for families and individuals during the holidays; and even toys for children at Christmas.
Given the continuing decline in the relative income of the working class, the number of area residents facing food scarcity is growing. Wages for lower income people are not keeping pace with inflation, work hours
are reduced to avoid paying benefits, child care and health care costs are rising, placing an increasing financial burden on the working poor. The need simply never ends.
The Capital Campaign
Anderson said KSS is totally dependent on the generosity of the community, as it has no committed funding source. While United Way of Portage County provides about 20 percent of the agency’s funding, the lion’s share comes from direct donations from local individuals, churches, civic groups, and businesses.
For the first time in its history, the KSS board is asking the community for help in supporting a capital improvements campaign. The campaign is expected to kick off later this month, once the firm DS Architecture, finalizes the renovation/expansion plan and creates a cost estimate. Metis Construction Services, also of Kent, will be serving as the general contractor for the project.
KSS has created a Capital Campaign Committee whose members will serve as project ambassadors. Led by Michelle Hartman, working chair, the committee also includes Marilyn Sessions, Laing Kennedy, Mike Beder, Bill White, Mike Finley, Kurt Ruehr, and Alfreda Brown. “We are pleased to share that KSS has already received about $100,000 in donations to kick start the campaign that we anticipate will cover about 20 percent of the cost,” Anderson said.
According to Hartman, being a vital part of the community has been the focal point for Kent Social Services where they provide more than just nourishing meals. They provide a nurturing atmosphere where the volunteers offer formidable support to the community members and their families and they help transform the service organization and society for the benefit of all people. “What every individual has in common is a very human need for food, dignity and respect. It’s important for us to take care of all people because this is what it means to be part of a community,” shared Hartman.
Anderson said KSS staff will be happy to provide a tour for anyone wishing to view the facility and learn more about the need for capital improvement donations.