Soup for the Soul

Board members and volunteers are celebrating Soup for the Soul's seventh anniversary this week as the organization's Lunch and Literacy summer program continues giving free meals and books to children. Pictured, from left, in the dining area are board member Erika Mehta, founder Debbie Smith, Kitchen Manager David Morgan and Board Director Noraa Ransey.

MURRAY – With schools out until August, Soup for the Soul is once again feeding young bodies and minds through its Summer Lunch and Literacy Program.

Soup for the Soul started the Summer Lunch and Literacy Program four years ago to not only provide needed nutrition, but also to protect kids against the so-called “summer slide,” the learning deficit that can result when children have been out of school all summer without any academic-related activities. In addition to meals, the children receive free books. The program started up again last week, so it is about to close its second week.

“These families that we’ve identified aren’t making it to the kitchen regularly or making it to the food pickups,” said Board Director Noraa Ransey. “They sometimes don’t have transportation or have some extreme need. They might be grandparents raising five kids; a lot of these families have three, four or five kids. So we are taking the food to them. (The volunteers making deliveries are) teachers from Murray and Calloway and we have a couple from Murray State and then we have three or four of our donors, which I think is really amazing. They’ve given $1,000 to help feed kids and then they’ve asked to do a route.”

Ransey said the program supplies – both nonperishable food and the books – have been housed at North Calloway Elementary, where Ransey teaches. She said Principal Melinda Hendley is currently on the board of directors and agreed to help the program last year during the pandemic both by basing the operation there and getting some volunteers from her church to help out.

“Every year is a little bit different, and this year is the highest number yet (for kids receiving food and books),” Ransey said. “I believe we set our cap at 300, and I think we’ll hit 400 before the summer’s over. We’re well over 300 already. We started the program doing snack packs; we started doing that last year and we’ve implemented a weekly meal that they can cook together.”

Ransey said Soup for the Soul sent out a survey, and people said they loved cooking the weekly meal together. Sponsors have supported the program at various levels, and she said it costs about $100 to feed one child all summer.

“We have been blessed to be under our budget last summer, and right now we’re still under our budget,” she said. “So if someone calls to say they need help, we don’t have to say no. We are pretty (efficient) with our money, but also, if we see a need, we’ll put it out there on our Facebook or Instagram or whatever and somebody always shows up. Some people will just leave a donation and not even leave their name, and I love that about Murray. People give what they can.”

Ransey said that in the first year, families were invited to Chestnut Park for the program. In the second year, volunteers picked up families on a school bus, but they still weren’t getting the participation they wanted, she said.

“I did a lot of work at the park back then, and the families that I knew back then weren’t showing up at the park,” she said. “The conversation kept happening between teachers and community members and volunteers, and we wanted to reach the people that we knew needed it the most. That’s how it evolved into us coming to them, and the family resource centers taking over the placement – because they knew the need. And it keeps it confidential.”

Soup for the Soul founder Debbie Smith said it has been a pleasure providing children with reading material for the summer. Ransey said that if kids do not keep up with their reading, they can regress about six months below the reading level where they stood at the end of the school year. If they read for 10 or 15 minutes a day, though, they will stay at their reading level and possibly progress past it, she said.

“We give an age-appropriate book, and if there are six kids in the family, they read each other’s books,” Smith said. “They’re starved for books. I had one girl say, ‘This is a brand-new book! I can’t believe we’re getting a brand-new book.’”

Ransey said the program volunteers will take requests from the families if the kids have a particular author they like or a particular genre they enjoy.

“We could not have pulled it off without the schools’ involvement, the family resource centers, and of course, the generosity of the community,” said board member Erika Mehta. “We’ve never really been to a point where we didn’t think we were going to be able to get them the food. It always works out even if we end up adding extra kids.”

Soup for the Soul celebrated its seventh anniversary on Tuesday, and the volunteers and board members say they are looking forward to another successful year. Ransey and Smith said they are not only successful because of the community’s support, but also the hard work and dedication from kitchen manager David Morgan and program coordinator Olivia Robinson.

While the organization has not been able to host sit-down meals in more than a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ransey said they expect to reopen the dining room to the public by the end of June. However, they will still offer the pickup window for anyone who still doesn’t feel comfortable eating inside around other people. Ransey added that while guests will not be required to wear masks, Soup for the Soul will ask its volunteers to continue to wear masks, especially if they are not vaccinated.

“I consider the last year a big blessing because we have a lot to celebrate, to not have to have closed one day, and to have supporters still show up,” Ransey said. “The Murray Bank funded the drive-thru window. We’ve had blessing after blessing. Many other non-profits had to worry about closing their doors, but we have had blessings continue to pour in. Whatever we thought we were going to want for, it was taken care of by the community.”

“Everything we do has just clicked,” Smith said.