An act of kindness makes all the difference in the world. It all began when two Catholic sisters saw a well-dressed gentleman enter Martha’s Kitchen on south Jensen Avenue in downtown Houston.
Martha’s Kitchen, which serves hot meals to more than 300 men, women and children who are homeless or down on their luck, is a mission and ministry of St. Martha Catholic Church in Kingwood.
The sisters and volunteers took notice of the gentleman, especially when he approached them with tears in his eyes.
“The man explained that Martha’s Kitchen helped him through some difficult times when he was out of work,” recalled Sister Carmen Sanchez, the ministry’s director. “Now that he was working, he brought a check and wanted to make a donation to help others.”
And just as one act of kindness makes a difference, one simple call can make a difference, too.
Jennifer Jozwiak made that simple call and joined an impressive group of volunteers who create tasty, nourishing lunches five days a week for anyone downtown who is hungry.
- Sister Carmen Sanchez has a wish list – and a dream -
“I knew it was a ministry of St. Martha’s. I felt called to serve this way, so I decided one day to ask if I could help,” Jozwiak recalled. “I immediately fell in love with the people working in the kitchen and the guests we serve.”
Like all volunteers, Jozwiak’s role for the day is whatever is needed.
“I’ll do anything from chopping vegetables to buttering bread and putting it in pans, to making desserts to be used in the future, or prepping the main courses for that day or the next day,” she said.
Jozwiak, one of 200 volunteers who keep the kitchen humming, is an Humble High graduate who lives in Atascocita with husband, Anthony, and their four kids. Before she became a Martha’s Kitchen volunteer, she worked for Continental Airlines, then did some catering, which has come in handy for her kitchen duties.
Jozwiak probably is better known in Lake Houston as the firecracker lady since she owns Magnum Fireworks, now up to 25 Houston locations.
“We had a wonderful gentleman named Mike Cook who, before he passed away, was primary cook on Tuesdays,” Jozwiak said. “Since that’s the day I volunteer, I ended up stepping into that role.”
When volunteers join the kitchen team – it takes a formidable group to help the sisters run the kitchen – they typically come in between 8 and 9:30 a.m. on the same day each week. After meal prep, they may serve food on the line, refill the line, help in the dining room or, of course, clean up, before leaving, usually by 1 p.m. Sisters Carmen Sanchez and Julie Sandoval are there long before the volunteers arrive and long after the last volunteer leaves.
Martha’s Kitchen is a non-profit 501(c)(3), created in 1991 when St. Martha’s then-pastor, Monsignor William Tinney, called on the skills of two sisters of the Missionary Catechists of Divine Providence, a religious order based in San Antonio that serve the poor and neglected. The two were Sandoval and Sister Maria Elena Lopez, both experienced in kitchen management, nutrition and spiritual ministry.
“We are a large-scale project, sponsored by St. Martha Catholic Church in Kingwood, which commits its resources and manpower to ensure that the hungry are fed,” said Sanchez, who became executive director when founder Lopez passed away.
“We are a social service ministry dedicated to Christ’s call of love for one another in sharing Christ’s mission to feed the hungry and preserve human dignity for all people,” she said,
A 10-member board and the pastor, Father T.J. Dolce, watch over the administrative part, but the heart of the kitchen is the volunteers.
It is easy to become a volunteer, Sanchez said. Volunteers need not be parishioners of St. Martha’s.
“We have volunteers from different parts of Houston and surrounding areas,” she said. “Simply call and complete the safe environment training program provided online by the archdiocese. Once cleared, the volunteer receives a handbook of guidelines and responsibilities. Our staff provides training.”
COVID-19 has created challenges, too. The dining room was closed for a month out of concern for the spread of the virus before reopening for takeout only.
“Mind you, our guests don’t complain,” said Jozwiak. “They can no longer wash their hands, sit down, enjoy a hot cup of coffee. Everything is to-go. I know they always appreciated being able to sit down and relax for a few minutes, especially when the days are very cold or very hot.”
COVID-19 has increased costs, too, Jozwiak pointed out, because the kitchen now must use consumable throw-away items.
Sanchez and Lopez value their corporate patrons, Houston Food Bank, Second Servings, Kroger, H-E-B and Aldi. Financial contributions are critical, too, because the kitchen must purchase napkins, service ware, eggs, vegetables, flour, cooking oil, seasonings, cheese, butter and the like.
“Large corporations provide some of our funds, but more than 70 percent come from our parishioners and individual donations,” said Sanchez. “We’d like to increase the number of our partnerships.”
She has a wish list of needs as she strategizes the possibilities for Martha’s Kitchen’s future.
“We’ll have to replace some major appliances such as the dishwasher, electric slicer, ice maker and ceiling tiles,” she said. “Fortunately, a St. Martha’s parishioner is proving funding to fix the entire kitchen floor.”
And then, like all selfless visionaries, Sanchez has a dream.
“I would love to invite chefs from throughout Houston to provide one meal a year to our guests,” she said.
Help Sanchez’s dreams come true. Volunteer or donate by calling 713-224-2522 or going to stmartha.com/marthas-kitchen.