Volume 20, Number 39 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | February 9 - 15, 2011

Downtown Express photos by Helaina N. Hovitz

There was plenty of chicken wings, fries and, of course, soup to go around at the SOUPerBowl party last Sunday at the NYC Rescue Mission.

No flat screens, just smiles needed for this SOUPerBowl party

BY Helaina N Hovitz

It’s 6:15 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday and even the most notorious restaurants in the city are empty — some haven’t bothered to open. Everyone is watching the Super Bowl with friends and family, gathered at bars or relaxing at home — but there’s still a line outside the NYC Rescue Mission at 90 Lafayette Street. The hungry and homeless men who have nowhere else to go will realize once inside that they, too, will get to celebrate the big game at the place they’ll call home for the night.

SOUPerBowl Week, a seven-day event that pairs soup kitchens with some of the city’s best chefs, was initially a fundraising event launched by Michael Colameco, host of WOR’s Food Talk and Colameco’s Food Show on PBS. After volunteering at the Mission in 2007, he began making public service announcements for SOUPerBowl week and directing donations to the Mission.

A year later, Mayor Michael Bloomberg caught on, and officially declared the week before Sunday’s big game SOUPerBowl week citywide. “The mission is always edifying, but not always festive,” explained Joe Little, the mission’s community relations manager. “This week, chefs sent soup, chowder, chili and gumbo, and helped make the entire week celebratory and warm.”

These chefs included Tribeca’s own David Bouley, Vikas Khanna, Fox Sportscaster Duke Castiglione, Al Yeganeh, the man behind the Seinfeld “Soup Nazi” Ron Silver of Bubby’s restaurant. Wade Burch, winner of Food Network’s Chopped and Head Chef of Southwest NY in Battery Park City brought chili so hot and spicy that the guys were still sweating it off on Monday.

The mission has always celebrated the big game with a party, which mainly consisted of hot dogs and wings, but Little knew that in order to launch their own official SOUPerBowl week, they would need to get a big name on board; more specifically, they needed someone who was “big” in the Downtown community. The first name that came to mind was David Bouley.

“Once other chefs heard that he was on board, they jumped on, too,” Little explained. “He has a history of community activism, so they could tell it was a real trustworthy cause. He set the bar, so chef after chef said, ‘Of course, we’ll sponsor a night.’”

The Soup-Super double entendre easily grabs the attention of perspective volunteers, which Little said is crucial in getting people involved.

“People want to give, but get caught up in their every day, especially elected officials, anchors, all the usual people with megaphones, and they don’t know when to do it,” Little said. “They need a hook.”

The event falls in the middle of the time gap between their big Thanksgiving and Mother’s Day banquets, during what is generally a quiet time of year for volunteer organizations. It’s also a very cold time of year, and this winter has been one of their roughest, for reasons that span far beyond the snow.

The mission opens its door to an average of 400 people daily, and has been picking up the slack ever since John Heuss House closed its 42 Beaver Street shelter last year. Unlike most men’s recovery missions, it doubles as a drop-in center for transient men, women, and children. Twenty-five beds are reserved for men in the mission’s twelve-step recovery program. While there was no shortage of food during the game, there was a shortage of something else: beer.

In fact, there wasn’t any at all. The entire building is an alcohol-free zone.

“It’s almost counter-cultural to have a game without beer, but it’s a problem for many of our residents and transient guests,” said Little. “We need to maintain a clean, sober setting.”

Mission resident Tom Knight has been in the program for four months and was watching big game sober for the first time in — well, he can’t remember. His family got him “into drinking” and refused to support his decision to quit, so he moved into the Mission and began the twelve-step recovery program.

Knight is now almost halfway through the ten-month program, which includes educational and vocational classes as well as spiritual counseling, and requires complete sobriety.

“It’s different, but it’s no big deal,” Knight said with a smile that exuded a certain humble confidence. “I can do it.”

Colameco’s decision to start a fundraising initiative for the mission came after he spent an afternoon serving food, clearing tables, and realizing that poverty and hunger don’t just have one face — especially in New York.

“Words like ‘needy’ always get thrown around, and certain ethnic and racial stereotypes come to mind, but you’d be surprised to see how many elderly Chinese people were there, even kids in their 20’s. Some looked like they had barely graduated high school,” Colameco said.

On Monday, Al Yeganeh, the man who inspired Seinfeld’s “Soup-Nazi” character, sent chicken noodle soup over to the mission. He may have a reputation for being edgy — even downright mean — but the owner of the national Original Soup Man chains has a history of ushering the homeless and the poor people to the front of the line and serving them for free.

FOX Sportscaster Duke Castiglione helped serve on Wednesday, and was reportedly very “sweet with the guys,” circulating and weeding out the Steelers fans the Packers fans. The spirit of the day made it easier for him to bond with the guys. For most men, he said, talking sports is like talking about the weather: it’s something they all have in common.

“We talked a lot of football, but they also wanted to talk a little Mets and Yankees,” Castiglione said. “The guys were real knowledgeable and came up to talk to me, and it was all very relaxed.”

Castiglione was long overdue to volunteer, according to his wife, Kiki, who volunteers regularly and has always encouraged Duke to do the same. He’s glad he finally did.

“We served 205 meals, men were coming up one after the other. A lot of people need help. The mission is always looking for volunteers, and welcomes you with open arms. I’d encourage anybody to go down there,” Castiglione said. “It’s not a high-pressure situation. They made me feel at home. I’ll definitely be back, and my wife will probably come with me.”

Vikas Khanna, who was welcomed into the shelter ten years ago on Christmas day, has been bringing soup and brownies over from his successful restaurant Junoon for the past five years. After arriving in New York from India in 2002, one of his first jobs was in a Downtown restaurant. He showed up on Christmas to start his shift only to find that the restaurant was closed. He had just enough money on him for the subway, but wouldn’t have been able to get to work the next day. Khanna wandered the neighborhood and found the mission, where he found a hearty meal and found refuge from the cold.

Khanna was unable to attend on Sunday, but restaurant representative Andrew Blackmore brought his famous lentil and spinach soup with him — along with a large dose of reality.

“On one side of the country, you have people paying a million dollars for a thirty-second advertising spot, and on the other, there’s a line of people waiting in the cold who need soup,” said Blackmore, who was flagged by his two children, Rutger, 7, and Morgan, 14, also volunteering. “You can’t depend on a government that’s running out of money. It’s up to every day people, average citizens, to create and build community.”

The Downtown community can always depend on Bubby’s restaurant in Tribeca to donate money to their local schools; but when the eatery decided to stay open for the first time on Thanksgiving to fundraise, they gave a generous-and unsolicited-donation to the Mission. Owner Ron Silver stepped up again last Friday and donated his famous chicken gumbo, which Miss Black New Jersey USA 2011, Nicole Stanley, was happy to help serve up — and then some.

“Nicole worked even harder than expected, serving, cleaning tables, and essentially mopping up at end of Friday dinner,” said Little.

“Don’t worry,” Little added, “the men were complete gentlemen around her.”

Some of the most noteworthy people gathered in the chapel to watch the big game Sunday weren’t just volunteers-they were residents who have been working diligently to get back on their feet for the past year. The mission claims that spiritual counseling has the power to change these men in ten months — that is, if they want to change themselves.

“I spent the last twenty five years running from God, but I found him,” explained Tyler Williams, 46, who spent twenty years in and out of prison. After almost three decades of substance abuse and numerous unsuccessful attempts at recovery, someone referred him to the mission. Williams believes that the mission has given him the tools he needs to maintain his new lifestyle.

Williams is pictured on the cover of the mission’s bi-monthly newsletter embracing his six-year-old son, with whom he was reunited for the first time in five years on Christmas Eve. He found the baby’s mother on Facebook while using the mission’s computer, and has seen him three times a week spoken to him every day since.

“He’s so smart,” Williams said with pride as he stared at the photo on the front page. “I’m blessed to be in his life now. He’s such a smart boy.”

Williams watched the Super Bowl sober on Sunday for the first time in 25 years, and his dedication has clearly paid off: he graduates from the program on Thursday.

He and the eight other men that arrived around the same time in May have promised to stay in touch after graduation, but know that Sunday’s party may well have been the last time they would all be together in the same room. None of the graduates know exactly what to expect after Thursday, but the mission will assist them with their job search and have already given the men the skills they need to start and maintain a new life.

And as the party continued in the chapel, cold, hungry men in dusty clothes filed into the mission’s entrance asking for jeans and a shower. Before halftime, a fight broke out and an unruly guest was ejected. By the end of the game, the room was full of excitement, but all of the men watching the big game were painfully aware that they were seated in plastic chairs, in rows of ten, watching on a small projector in a shelter where quotes from the Bible lined the walls.

But for men in the crowd like Tyler, something else was present in the room: hope that they would be hosting next year’s party in their own homes, celebrating another sober Super Bowl.

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