By Scott Prater
Being a volunteer coordinator for a local soup kitchen requires a multitude of managerial skills: one must find enough volunteers to complete a large-group project, delegate tasks to upwards of 30 people, coach inexperienced volunteers, divide the workload in an efficient manner and manage any crises that might arise during an eight hour shift.
For Jeff Graham, a former U.S. Army colonel, the work comes naturally. As a contractor for the National Reconnaissance Office Operations Squadron, he practices his management skills on a regular basis, but on the second Saturday of every month he calls on them as he coordinates Schriever volunteers at the Marian House Soup Kitchen in downtown Colorado Springs.
“The work is extremely gratifying in the sense that you feel like you’re doing something nice for people who don’t have it so nice,” he said. “There is a sense of appreciating and being thankful for what you have, but that’s really secondary.”
Graham began working here during 2001 and began volunteering at Marian House soon after. Back then, his fellow NOPS contractor Len Packer acted as the Marian House volunteer coordinator here. Graham took over as the volunteer coordinator back in 2007.
“Really, it involves sending out e-mails and collecting responses,” he said. “I generally send out the inquiry a couple of weeks out and then build a team.”
As volunteer coordinator, his work doesn’t end there. In reality, it’s just beginning.
Every second Saturday, Graham’s team of volunteers arrive early in the morning to cook the meal, set up the kitchen and dining area, serve a meal for an average of 500 people, then break it down and clean up.
He compares the typical early-morning scene to that of a popular cooking channel show known as Iron Chef.
“I get there around 6 a.m. and the Marian House gives me around 40 pounds of some kind of meat,” said Graham. “Then you get a closet full of donations and whatever is left over from the last meal. You don’t get a menu card or a recipe. You just have to figure out what you can make out of it.”
Using a set-up crew of about 15, Graham cooks the meal, then coordinates another crew of about 25 who show up to serve and clean.
“I like the challenge,” he said. “You say to yourself, I can turn that into soup and I can turn that into spaghetti and I can turn that into a side dish. I work in a high-stress environment and I worked in a command-post type environment during my entire military career so I function well in that environment. That’s sort of my forte.”
Around 10 a.m., the serving crew shows up, so Graham provides a briefing on what to expect, what to react to, what not to react to, health regulations and keeping a smile on your face.
“I remember right after coming back from a tour in the Middle East, I met a man who was literally blue from the cold,” he said. “My family has been blessed, my community supports me and I feel like I can support my community. Again it comes back to doing something nice for people who don’t have it so well.”
Jim Benavidez, Marian House senior operations manager, says the one-day volunteer coordinators like Graham are extremely vital to the operation of the soup kitchen, especially on weekends.
“During the weekend we have a total staff of three people,” he said. “Without the volunteer coordinators we really couldn’t serve meals. One thing that Jeff always says before each service is, ‘The most important thing we’re serving here is love.’ That sends a chill up my spine every time. He’s a remarkable man, warm-hearted and extremely organized on top of it.”
Benavidez noted that the number of people the soup kitchen serves has grown during the past few years, from an average of 450, four years ago, to around 650 today.
“We’re seeing a lot of children on the weekends now because they don’t get a school meal on the weekend,” he said.
Any base members interested in volunteering for the Marian House soup kitchen should contact Jeff Graham at 567-7716.