It’s late on a warm Friday afternoon at University Temple United Methodist Church, across 15th Ave. NE from the UW campus. A number of people mill slowly about a large room filled with tables and shelves full of rag-tag thrift store items, or sit visiting over cups of coffee.
On a low stage at one end of the long room are stored two dozen or more folded mats for sleeping. This is the home of ROOTS (short for Rising Out of the Shadows), a nonprofit program begun by the church in 2000 to help shelter and feed homeless people, especially those between 18 and 25 years old. Later, the tables will be folded up and the mats set out to host the shelter’s guests for the night.
But just now, the Friday Feast is being prepared — a massive free meal for anyone in the community of any age or circumstance to share. Each Friday, program staff and volunteers make hot meals enough for 150 guests in the hall. The Friday Feast was begun about 10 years back by Sinan Demirel, a former UW graduate student and current Roots program director. Demirel organized the food donations and the meal planning and even scouted out the location.
Visitors filter in from the sunshine outside in ones and twos, some arm in arm as if for a church service. While they mingle, talk, shop or watch an old black-and-white television, the large kitchen alongside the meeting hall is filled with activity. There, Kevin Kotecki, the 21-year-old coordinator of the meal, chops vegetables and prepares dishes for cooking, answering occasional questions from guests and helpers. He’s a chef by trade, and says this paying job grew from his own volunteering for ROOTS.
Sometimes he has a lot of help, some days not so much. “It depends. On any given day I can only count on one or two fairly regular volunteers,” says Kotecki, a senior who is double-majoring in International Studies and French. “And they tend to be people who are homeless that come and help over the course of the day.” He also says, “And some days it’s just me.”
Matt Fox, deputy director of ROOTS, also present and active Friday afternoons, says, “We have a very good UW volunteer base during the year,” through an ongoing partnership with the Carlson Center, which sends over students fulfilling a service learning requirement for a class. Fox adds, however, “it gets thin during the summer with the campus population way down. We always need volunteers — there is never a shortage of opportunities for volunteers.”
The guests themselves often help as they can, and that help is greatly appreciated. But it’s also true, ROOTS organizers say gently, that some of the guests are often distracted by their own concerns, from homelessness to physical, mental and emotional ills.
Kotecki, a thoughtful and well-spoken fellow, says he does appreciate the help the guests give, though, and understands its importance to them as well. “They feel like they are useful and that’s a nice change of pace for them. In the course of the week they are just plain ignored, harassed or looked down on, and it feels good to contribute to something larger than themselves.”
Fox says ongoing volunteer needs include helping at the shelter (for which a bit of special training is required); setting up, preparing and cleaning up after meals; carting laundry to and from the UW Medical Center, where it is done, or numerous other small jobs “as fits (volunteers’) interests and abilities.”
Even if it’s just for an hour or so, Kotecki and Fox both say, they could use the additional help. The thrift store constantly needs donations, too.
As Kotecki said, the people who use the ROOTS shelter and eat at the Friday Feast “are there because they need something they can’t get on their own” — and the staff and volunteers help provide it.