By Trevor Privratsky The smell of potato soup fills the air as a late morning crowd gathers at the Damiano Center. Although these people are considered some of the city’s less fortunate, their spirits brighten up an otherwise damp late-winter day in Duluth’s Central Hillside.
The people waiting in line couldn’t be more different from one another. Small kids run though the halls as they play a makeshift game of tag. All the while, a few elderly people gather at a side table to chat, their stomachs are already filled but they are starved for conversation.
The scene resembles a large family reunion, even though most of the people are unrelated. The sense of community is unmistakable, and that is exactly the way it is meant to be.
Scott Yeazel knows the Damiano Center like the back of his hand. He has volunteered here for years, and he is the leader of the Damiano-sponsored Twin Ports Action Coalition (TPAC).
“The great thing about Damiano is that it brings the community together,” Yeazel said, “The area really is a big melting pot and we get to see that every day.”
The building wasn’t always a center for community action. For years, the building acted as a Catholic school, but as need for the school dwindled, the building was abandoned and remained that way for several years. In the early 1980s, the taconite mines and city factories layed off numerous Duluthians as bankruptcy and housing foreclosures skyrocketed. In 1982, the lonely building became the Damiano Center and began to help people in need in the same way it does today.
Volunteers have been the heart and soul of the Damiano Center since the beginning. Individuals and groups of volunteers lend a helping hand in all aspects of Damiano. One such group is the Kiwanis Club, whose Duluth branch has cooked chili every second Sunday of every month since 1986. The reason for serving chili stems from the first time the club volunteered at Damiano. The club tried to make spaghetti, but thanks to over-cooked noodles and botched sauce no one enjoyed the experience. The next week, they made chili, which was a great success compared to the week before. The Kiwanis Club decided right then to make chili a tradition, and never looked back.
Sandy Bennet has been in charge of the soup kitchen for the past 10 years and hopes that the center will continue to make strides to make the resources more accessible for all people.
“We have just been approved to put an elevator in, which we are really excited about,” Bennet said. “Considering how many elderly and disabled people that come in for our meals this is a huge step.”
The addition of an elevator, while just a slight adjustment, will make a huge difference in the amount of wheelchair and handicapped people who will be able to come in for a free lunch. Right now, any person who wishes to eat must walk down at least one flight of stairs. If people need to pick up clothes from the center they need to walk up a flight of stairs. Considering the amount of people who show up that may have issues getting up and down stairs, the addition of the elevator is a huge accomplishment.
The Damiano Center would also like to make some changes to the currently unused third floor. According to Bennet, the center would like to go green and install some form of renewable energy system such as solar or wind power that would make the building self-sufficient. It would take more donations and public money for this to happen, but it would allow the building to conserve energy and it would possibly save money in the long run.
The Damiano Center has always been a place of growth, whether it be new additions in organizations or the amount of people who are helped because of the programs. Today, the center feeds around 300 people per day, all because of donations from local organizations and grocery stores.
“Everything that happens at Damiano is because of the Duluth community,” said Richard Howell, who volunteers regularly, “We are truly blessed to be in a community that continues to meet our needs all the time.”
The Damiano Center sits in an area known more for crime than community, yet it is a place where people meet up with each other and care about each others lives. The people come from all walks of life. Some people are at the darkest point in their lives and feel like they will never land on their feet, and yet they are welcomed with open arms and a meal. Sometimes that is all it takes to brighten someone’s day, even on a damp late-winter day.