The last thing Steve Hart expected - or wanted - to be was homeless. But when a fire destroyed his home in Everett in December 2010, right before Christmas, the single dad and his 5-year-old son were placed in a motel by the state for almost one year.
“We could’ve been on the street. We just kept positive,’’ said Hart, who recently moved into an apartment in Roxbury with his son and is studying to be a minister, so he can help others as he has been helped.
Mary Beth Leon, who works at Frannie’s, a popular restaurant in Malden’s Maplewood Square, never expected to cook for 40 people at one time. But listening to George Laskey, a customer, talk about his longtime work for Bread of Life - especially serving almost 200 meals on Tuesdays at a nearby motel - Leon asked how she could help.
There’s no dinner bell rung. No shouts of “Dinner!’’ in the street. And no complaints - just gratitude - when Bread of Life, a faith-based volunteer organization in Malden, is serving free weekly meals to the hungry, homeless, and isolated.
In 2011, Bread of Life distributed the equivalent of 891,000 free meals.
The nonprofit’s been bursting at the seams. One of the top five purchasers and distributors at the Greater Boston Food Bank, the nonprofit serves low-income people from Malden, Everett, Medford, Melrose, Stoneham, Saugus, Wakefield, Reading, North Reading, and Winchester.
In December, Bread of Life moved from its tiny storefront location on Main Street in Malden to an expanded location on Eastern Avenue, the former Volpe Construction building.
In addition to meals, Bread of Life also works with local agencies to provide furniture, clothing, housewares, advocacy, and free health care.
“We’ve been looking for 10 years to bring all that we do - food pantry, evening meals, and offices - under one roof,’’ said Gabriella Snyder Stelmack, special projects coordinator.
Laskey, a board member and longtime volunteer, said that often, guests were forced to wait outside the smaller storefront, on the sidewalk, regardless of the weather and in public view. “There wasn’t much dignity,’’ he said.
The need for Bread of Life was first realized, Stelmack said, when two men walked in, hungry, to a potluck supper at St. Paul’s Parish in Malden in 1980. Believing that God would want them to feed the men, the parishioners did. Word spread.
Tom Feagley, Bread of Life executive director, cooked some of the first meals in his own kitchen. A few years later, he hired Stelmack, who had left a microbiology career on the Cape to pursue a music career in Boston and was looking to add more meaning to her work. With Bread of Life incorporated 20 years ago this year, the cofounders are, according to Leon, “the pillars of the organization, and extremely humble.’’
Bread of Life makes it work on a shoestring: a $334,286 annual operating budget and five paid staff members: three full time (including Feagley and Stelmack), and two part time. With exquisite orchestration that rivals the Boston Pops’ Keith Lockhart, the ministry conducts a web of some 500 volunteers and 35 partner organizations, all contributing in various ways to ensure the ministry continues its mission to provide “food for the body, nurture for the soul.’’
Since those first two men in 1980, the number served daily Tuesday through Friday has grown to 75 to 125 sit-down meals at either St. Paul’s or First Baptist Church of Malden. In addition, every Tuesday, an additional 180 to-go meals - prepared in partnership with volunteer organizations on a rotating schedule - are delivered to those living in one of three motels used as state shelters in the Malden-Saugus area.
“It can be overwhelming to prepare 180 meals,’’ said Leon, “so we make it easy and break it down into 40 meals [per volunteer or group].’’ Signed up herself to prepare - at home, at her own expense - a meal to feed 40 every fifth Tuesday, Leon said, “Who can’t cook for 40?’’
Besides a hot meal for each person packaged in a white to-go container, each motel household receives one to two bags of groceries. Each bag, the equivalent of 12 meals, includes food supplies easily prepared in a microwave. The sparse motel rooms have no kitchens. People often move to the motels with little to nothing, so requests are made for plastic utensils to eat the meals and can openers to open the canned goods.
Local businesses contribute donations to the food pantry, including Trader Joe’s and Panera Bread in Saugus, and Walgreens in Malden and Melrose.
Even children help. When Cheverus Elementary School learned a stunning math lesson - for under 40 cents, a child can be fed one hot meal - students decided to contribute their small change.
A list of churches, temples, and community organizations that help cook and serve weekly sit-down meals on a rotating schedule - often at their own expense - is long, among them: St. Patrick’s in Stoneham, Sacred Hearts Church in Malden, the Melrose Rotary Club, Temple Tifereth Israel in Malden, and the Knights of Columbus Santa Maria Council 105 in Everett. Some groups pay for all meal supplies, some use supplies from the food pantry to make meals or supplement meals. Some groups make financial donations, in addition to making meals. La Famiglia Giorgio, a North End restaurant, caters one meal a month.
Separately, groups supply the motel meals, including Anthony’s of Malden and the Junior Aid Association in Malden, St. Mary’s of the Annunciation in Melrose, and Cheverus. Community Cooks in Somerville, a nonprofit network of volunteers who prepare meals at home for the needy, wanted to expand the circle of those they serve, and joined in after finding Bread of Life through an online search.
The Boston Burger Company got involved when Bread of Life board member Karl Diaz asked his friend Paul Malvone, owner of the Somerville restaurant, if he could help with one meal. After touring the former facilities and meeting people at the motels, so grateful for the 56 dinners of juicy hamburgers and homemade potato chips, Malvone had one question: When could they bring the next meal?
“We’re serving our customers out front,’’ said Malvone, who’s busy expanding into Back Bay. “They don’t even know what’s going out the back [door].’’
Julie Crowley, owner of Bobby C’s restaurant in Melrose, got involved because her daughter, Jenna Dion, 16, was required to contribute 40 hours of community service each year as a student at Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden. Dion decided to help out at Bread of Life her freshman year with her good friend, Brittany Alfonso.
“After school, we’d go to the Bread of Life kitchen and start chopping, making salads . . . whatever was needed,’’ Dion said. “People are always saying ‘thank you, thank you.’ We were the ones who felt honored to do it.’’ Now sophomores, the girls plan to return this spring.
The past 18 months, Bobby C’s has made 40 motels meals every third Tuesday at the restaurant’s expense. Her husband, Paul Dion, and staff cook meals they’d serve their own family and customers: like chicken parmigiana, salad, pasta, and bread. Born and raised in Malden, Crowley said, “They are our neighbors.’’