WELCOME TO MIRIAM'S KITCHEN
“Hi,” the man with the bird scarf tied jauntily around his neck says, offering a hearty handshake. “I’m Michael Ford. I’m chronically homeless. I like farting around with collages.”
Michael, and others, can indulge their artistic inclinations at Miriam’s Studio, the twice-daily therapeutic art sessions at Miriam’s Kitchen, in Foggy Bottom.
Every day, the staff and volunteers at Miriam’s Kitchen fight to help their neighbors in need. From meals to permanent supportive housing services, the goal is help clients not just survive, but thrive.
Raised as a military brat, Michael, 58 (“I should have said 58 and seven-eighths”) spent most of his adult life in Colorado, where he worked in mechanical maintenance. After losing his job, his home, and being denied disability for benefits for bi-polar disorder, he came to DC in spring of 2014.
He first came to Miriam’s Kitchen to get a state ID, he said, and kept coming back. “If they had showers and laundry,” he said, “it’d be the cat’s meow.”
All services at Miriam’s Kitchen are pro bono; the studio is as anonymous as the client wants it to be.
“If you come in here and you say your name is Jesus, you’re welcome,” said Kate, art therapist and case manager
She described Miriam’s Studio as“super collaborative, person-centered” and “not too therapy-ish.”
“This is a place people can chill out and engage in services in a different place. “
“A lot of our guests don’t have their own living room,” said Meg Dominguez, senior case manager. “We view this as a place for our guests to hang out and be.”
THE WISE OWL
Shandell is a Miriam’s Kitchen guest most days. He enjoys beading. His time in Miriam’s Studio, he said, helps him to relieve the stress he can feel when dealing with “peer problems,” – people who come along, people who don’t understand.
“I find it interesting,” he said, laying a pattern of beads for what he called a wise owl necklace. “It gives me peace of mind.”
Raised by his grandparents, Shandell never knew his father. He was kicked out of his home as a teenager. “I’m still lost,” he says.
At present, Shandell is in his first year of permanent supportive housing, learning the day-to-day work of taking care of having “a room of ones own,” to hearken back to freshman literature classes.
“It can be overwhelming,” director of communications Tom Murphy said. “It’s not like you’re lined up at an apartment and all your problems go away.”
In fact, he said, no longer having to worry about the immediate needs – where to sleep, for example, forces people to have to focus on longer-term needs – say, employment – which can cause extreme stress.
Shandell is trying, he said. “I always make my bed every morning before I leave the house.” He wants to get his teeth fixed, get his high school diploma, study law and cyber security.
“I keep pushing.”
Many people who have moved out of homelessness come back to Miriam’s Kitchen and to the studio because they feel supported here. Michael creates collages as gifts for the staff members, who have been kind to him.
He showed off a few of his collages, one featuring celebrity faces, the other with a political bent. There are photos of Hillary and Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan with a chimpanzee, Ted Cruz with a heart over his body, elephants and donkeys.
“I like Hillary,” he declared. “I think she’d be great for 2016. There’s a lot of know-how and knowledge.”
Like Shandell, Michael continues to look to the future. He’d like to own his own business, he said.
EVERY NEW THING IS A BEGINNING
Bea is happy to focus on the present. At 81,she is accentuating the positive.
“I enjoy Paradise,” she said. “I am enjoying God’s present. Every new thing is a beginning.”
She smiles at Tom. “Thank you for serving us.”
The services provided by Miriam’s Kitchen depend on the kindness of friends and strangers alike.
“If we’re serious about our mission, we really can’t do it unless we get a new kind of collaboration,” said Tom.
One of the challenges to collaboration, he said, is that oftentimes people in the private sector don’t know how they can help. But there are plenty of ways to do so. Last year, The Advisory Board Company did some pro bono research for Miriam’s Kitchen.
Georgetown Cupcakes makes weekly donations. Foggy Bottom Farmers Market donates food they won’t be able to use, as does Trader Joe’s. Individuals and families provide in-kind donations year round.
Because of in-kind donations, Tom said, the cost of meals – 87,000 in total served last year – comes out to about 35 cents per plate. Most of the donations go to services, many of which are provided thanks to the more than 2500 volunteers who give their time.
Presently, said communications manager Martha Wolf, they are looking for volunteers to help run creative writing groups for Miriam’s Studio.
As she crochets a beanie, Bea talks about her life in North Korea. “I studied cosmetology, I played piano, I did ballet for 20 years.” She encourages people to take classes, sharing that she enjoys swimming and playing tennis. She attends yoga classes at Miriam’s Kitchen once a week.
“I can do anything,” she announces, stretching her leg over her head. Yes, that’s correct, this 81-year-old woman can put her leg over her head.
Bea holds up one finger to make a point.
“Say ‘I can.’”
About the Author: Holly Leber is the editorial director at The Daily Do Good. She is not remotely able to stretch her leg over her head.