Service with a Smile
Regional cafe serves up more than food
If food is a love language, the volunteers and staff at Samaritan Community Center are fluent.
Anyone in the community is welcome to stop by their centers in Rogers and Springdale for hot meals, groceries, encouragement, and “to get loved on.” There’s nothing to prove. No need to show you’re hungry, poor, or needy in any way. Just show up.
What started as a small church ministry in 1989 has grown into one of the largest charitable organizations in Northwest Arkansas. Through their markets and cafes, the center served nearly 100,000 warm meals last year, in addition to providing groceries, weekend snack packs for children, fresh garden produce, and even dental and medical care.
In any another organization, the Samaritan Cafe might be known as a soup kitchen. But don’t call it that.
“When you go through a line, you’re just a number. When you go here, you’re a person,” said Elisa Pulido, the cafe program coordinator. “Here, they’re made to feel important. They’re cared for, and they’re loved on. They’re going to be served with respect, because they deserve as much respect as anybody who goes to eat at any restaurant.”
And it really is a cafe atmosphere. Clients walk in off the street, sit down at tables adorned with red-and-white checkered tablecloths, and a server comes over and greets them. Plates are delivered along with questions like, “May I get you anything else? More tea? Any dessert?”
If you’re still hungry when your plate is empty, just ask for another. On a typical day, the cafe will serve about 250 meals. In the summer, that number runs closer to 325, with children joining their parents when they’re out of school. Workers from nearby businesses drop by - some to volunteer and some who need a meal.
On a recent bustling day, Joseph Frederick wore a wide smile as he served dozens of plates of chicken fajitas and rice alongside a colorful salad heaped with fresh lettuce from the center’s year-round garden. Joseph, who works in a nearby Tyson Foods plant, comes in every Tuesday to volunteer. His company donated the chicken for the meal - one of many local businesses and restaurants that schedule regular donations.
“This is a way for me to see people face to face and understand that there are people in our community who are hungry,” Joseph said.
That conversational interaction is the special ingredient here.
“If you’ve got something you’re dealing with, we’re probably going to pick up on it if we serve you face to face,” Elisa said.
That same philosophy governs the operation of the Samaritan Market, adjacent to the cafe (don’t call it a food pantry). Those who come to shop in the market check in with “encouragers,” mostly volunteers who offer a type of case management. They ensure that individuals follow the rule of only picking up supplies at the market once a month, but they also ask how things are going, and they discuss ideas for resources that may be helpful.
And they offer to pray, if that’s welcome. After all, this did start as a ministry of Fellowship Bible Church. Now, 20 local churches help keep the center running, along with more than 300 volunteers at 12 locations, including thrift stores in Rogers and Springdale that contribute to the operating budget.
In the market, volunteers organize the food like they’re stocking a retail grocery. Those who come in to shop are able to grab a cart and choose the items they need - the ones their families will eat and that they’re willing to prepare at home. Fresh eggs and produce are available, along with toiletries, diapers and other home supplies. Instead of going home with a grab-bag of items that someone thinks a family might need, the family takes home what they want and will use.
This is, along with the names like “cafe” and “market,” part of a purposeful empowerment model, said Mary Mann, director of community relations for Samaritan Community Center. People are making choices for themselves. “We don’t just feed them; we feed the soul and everything.”
Gary Carson, a retired attorney and circuit judge, volunteers in the Springdale market one day a week. He said looking into the eyes of the families he serves keeps him coming back.
“That’s all you’ve gotta do, is look at the people,” he said. “If I were in their shape, I’d want somebody to be able to help me, too.”
In the cafe, the staff and volunteers work hard to make the offerings more healthful. The Samaritan Garden harvested 6,531 pounds of fresh produce last year for use in the cafe meals and in the market. Gone are the daily drop-offs of leftover donuts and cakes from local bakeries. Almost every day, dessert is fresh fruit.
Even sweet tea is out.
“That took some getting used to,” Elisa said. “But most clients have responded very well.”
Banning sweet tea may be tough love, but it’s still love.
“We may be the only place where they come and they’re loved on,” Mary said. “That’s our job. We want to feed them, but food is just another way to love on them.
Samaritan Cafe in Springdale operates every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The Rogers cafe has the same hours but is open Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday.
“Harvest partners,” businesses that regularly donate food to the cafes, include Olive Garden Italian Kitchen, Outback Steakhouse, Red Lobster, LongHorn Steakhouse, Bonefish Grill, Carraba’s Italian Grill, Rich Products, Noodles Italian Restaurant, Casey’s Convenience Store, and Tyson Foods Inc.
Samaritan Market in Springdale is open from 9 to 11 a.m. Tuesday and Thursday. The Rogers market is open the same hours Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.
The centers are at 1300 N. Thompson St., Suite G, in Springdale, and 1211 W. Hudson Road in Rogers.
More information on the centers, how to help, or how to get help is at http://www.samcc.org.