Answering the call in a crisis, East Boston Community Soup Kitchen delivers for families

Courtesy East Boston Soup Kitchen

Cargo Ventures helps in time of need

In 2016, Sandra Nijjar found herself without a job, a stark challenge for a resident where the cost of living in Boston increases every day. But unemployment wasn’t an obstacle. If there was not a job out there for her, she came up with an idea and created one for herself although it was not a paying job but it certainly was a dream to help the most vulnerable in a more consistent manner.

However, after about four months of being unemployed, Nijjar was recalled from her previous employer as a seasonal and was given Tuesdays off and her pay was prorated so she could continue her soup kitchen’s effort which she was not willing to give up on. 

With a burning desire to help the neighborhood’s homeless, she started the East Boston Community Soup Kitchen. Located at the Our Savior Lutheran Church on Paris Street, Nijjar grew a food pantry and soup kitchen that today serves 40 to 50 men and 250 families. “The help from East Boston is overwhelming.”

Despite the growing prosperity that comes with new development, people living with food insecurity are growing and sometimes in the shadows. “I noticed that we have a population of middle-aged men without families and without small children who are addicts and live on the streets; and pretty much without any help, particularly the undocumented folks.”

The soup kitchen is more than just food, she says. “My goal is to use food as a tool where men can then be connected to the services they need to become sober.”

The East Boston Soup Kitchen also does a lot of advocacy work for its patrons such as making connections to existing services in the area when folks need a shower, clean clothes, detox services and even help with health insurance paperwork.

She says that she is blessed to have the support of the Our Savior’s Lutheran Church and the many volunteers that have lent a hand over the years. “Everyone is pitching in.”

Nijjar says the key to success is not only to be welcoming but non-judgmental. “No one is perfect and everyone has a story.” She notes that some of her patrons suffer from childhood trauma or mental illness. The turn-arounds are tinged with sadness. “Once they are sober I don’t see them anymore.”

Like most small community-based human service agencies, Nijjar makes a dollar stretch. She collects perfectly edible food from local restaurants. “We really don’t waste food here.”

That challenge of organizing, setting up and securing community support for the pantry nearly four years ago, pales in comparison to what she faces today: How to feed the homeless middle age men in the age of the coronavirus one of the neighborhoods most besieged by the novel disease. East Boston has one of the highest rates of COVID-19 infections and the virus has hit minorities the hard.

On March 10 the kitchen closed. But Nijjar’s work didn’t stop then even though she didn’t report to a kitchen anymore. She started getting the word out to local organizations and supporters such as Resurrection Church.

Any work during the shutdown required funding. It was just as the city was putting its stay-at-home policy in place that Nijjar received a call from Pat Capogreco, community liaison for Cargo Ventures, who asked “‘How can we help?'”

The industrial real estate and logistics firm kicked in much-needed cash.  Food that was once prepared, served and consumed in the church basement was now made available by vouchers, gift cards and references to local eateries such as Taco Mex, Meridian Food Market, La Casa Del Pandebono. Cargo Ventures picked up the tab for all the meals without asking how much the meals would cost.

“Cargo Ventures is my life-saving angel to say the least. They reached out the first day we closed,” says Nijjar.

“As an East Boston resident and Cargo Venture employee I’m very happy to be in a position to help out the soup kitchen which is helping people in the community who are in need,” notes Capogreco.

Such help is inspiration for the future. Nijjar would like a more permanent place for the soup kitchen on this side of the Boston Harbor. Even though East Boston is a highly desirable place to live, it remains isolated. That makes it harder for the vulnerable who have to find their way to downtown Boston.

Competition for real estate is fierce but the East Boston Soup Kitchen has proved that it can overcome any crisis. By being there in the most trying crisis in modern times for the people who need it most, Nijjar, her band of volunteers, network of eateries and supporters like Cargo Ventures, have the will to make it happen.

“Sandra is very dedicated in her cause working hard to help people,” says Capogreco.