Cor Unum, Not Your Average Soup Kitchen, Serves Sit-Down Meals

Here, there are no waiting lines for food, no lumps of soup ladled into bowls and no resemblance to a standard soup kitchen. Here, visitors are served as though guests at a restaurant. Waiters seat all guests at tables decorated with flowers and take their orders from a menu of prepared items. Cor Unum, a not-for-profit meal center located in the south of Lawrence, Massachusetts, serves free, hot meals for breakfast and dinner every day. Since it opened its doors in September 2006, Cor Unum has served over 127,000 people. The number of people served each day averages around 100 for breakfast and 400 for dinner. Cor Unum, which is Latin for “one heart,” is unlike most other soup kitchens. Instead of shuffling down a food line with a tray, guests are waited on at their tables. “We actually run it like a restaurant. It’s very pretty in there, and there are always fresh flowers on the table. It has a lot more dignity than sending people through lines,” said Diane Jarvis, Director of Cor Unum. “Many meal centers are very institutionalized and dark, but it’s nice to come here to something that feels like a restaurant. Some children even think it’s a real restaurant,” she said. This holiday season, Cor Unum plans on serving a special dinner on Christmas Day, December 25. Cor Unum will serve a candlelit dinner, with a menu featuring shrimp cocktail, roast beef and “all the fixings,” Jarvis said. Cor Unum will provide a Christmas gift for all guests as well. Reverend Paul O’Brien, Pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Lawrence, is the chairperson of Cor Unum. He founded the meal center hoping to address hunger problems in Lawrence. Jarvis said, “Father Paul’s always been involved with hunger issues and the poor. When he was living in Rome, he actually worked with Mother Theresa. Having had that experience working with Mother Theresa made him more aware of the poor and their needs, and made him more compassionate. I think that is really what drove him into trying to illuminate some of the hunger problems in the [Lawrence] area.” According to the Cor Unum website, the city of Lawrence is the poorest in Massachusetts with 33.1 percent of its residents living below the poverty line. Of children under age 18 in Lawrence, 49.9 percent live in households below the poverty line. Approximately 75 percent of school-age children in Lawrence qualify for government-subsidized food programs, meaning that three out of four children in Lawrence are at risk for hunger. For these reasons, Rev. O’Brien established Cor Unum in South Lawrence, where there had previously been no center to provide free, hot meals to the general population. “In North Lawrence, you have [soup kitchens] Lazarus House and Bread and Roses, but they are too far away for some people in South Lawrence,” said Jarvis. “We even serve many children that come by themselves—anywhere from 30 to 100 children a day. It’s amazing how many kids don’t have a place to eat or food at home.” Said Peggy Oliveto, who has worked at Cor Unum since its opening, “We found a real need for hungry people in the area—homeless children who roam the streets and don’t have meals, and the working poor who pay their bills and have no money left for food.” Construction of the Cor Unum Meal Center was completed in the fall of 2006 and cost $1.8 million. Private donors contributed to the majority of the costs and the Roman Catholic Archdioceses of Boston paid for much of the remaining expenses. Cor Unum currently costs around $200,000 yearly to maintain. According to Jarvis, about 85 percent of the food prepared in the Cor Unum kitchens comes from the Greater Boston Food Bank. Restaurants in the region sometimes come in and cater all the food for a particular meal. Cor Unum has also launched a fundraising initiative, “Labels are for Jars,” whose proceeds go directly to help operate the charity. The projects sells black shirt that has a negative label used to stereotype people on the front of the shirt, such as “minority,” “geek” or “addict.” The backs of the shirts read, “Labels Are for Jars.” “Labels Are For Jars” is the brainchild of a team comprised of Rev. O’Brien, talk show host Conan O’Brien, and Major League Baseball first baseman Sean Casey. Rev. O’Brien and Conan O’Brien, who are unrelated, were roommates at Harvard University. While the charity does need the money gained from fundraising, it also is in need of volunteers. 20 Phillips Academy students and faculty volunteers worked at the Cor Unum Meal Center on Non Sibi Day. “Father Paul has just done an astonishing thing with [Cor Unum],” said Nicholas Kip, Instructor in Classics and Faculty Project Leader. “Everybody treats each other like people over there. It isn’t just for homeless people because a lot them aren’t homeless. Many of them have apartments but they can’t afford housing and food. It’s that tough. But this place really helps them out,” he said. Student Project Leader Kelsey Lim ’10 said, “I’ve served at meal centers before but Cor Unum was really unique because it was more like a restaurant and it was more interactive than at a normal soup kitchen. People come in and you take their order and serve them whatever food they want. This way, you have more interaction with the guests instead of them going through a line and you dumping food on their tray.” “We welcome everyone to Cor Unum and we invite everybody to come check it out and to volunteer. The big message we’re trying to send is that there are hunger issues out there and somehow we need to work together to eliminate hunger,” said Jarvis.