“When you’re serving this morning, we ask you to serve with a smile. It may be the only smile they get all day.” Ron Bezon, manager of the St. Mary’s Catholic Church Soup Kitchen, gives this gentle reminder to the early Saturday volunteers from the dollar-a-day philanthropy group GiVE 365 who are handing out soup and sandwiches to a growing line of men and women.
Bezon guides the volunteers throughout the morning, overseeing the production of dozens of peanut butter sandwiches, describing the daily ritual of preparing 75 quarts of soup, and giving a tour of the stunningly beautiful St. Mary’s, Memphis’ second-oldest Catholic church. The soup kitchen has been operating continuously since 1870, with more than 90,000 meals served in 2013. Bezon’s tour includes the subterranean freezer room, where a $5,000 grant from GiVE 365 bought freezers that store a week’s worth of food.
GiVE 365 member Sonya Fleck says, “Ron is a fantastic man to volunteer for. He keeps the ‘why’ you’re doing it first and foremost. He’s passionate about this place.” Ruby, the five-year-old daughter of GiVE 365 volunteer Lori Brunson, says “I came because I’m sad there are poor people. I can make their day a little better.”
Making the day better for the poor, homeless and less fortunate is at the heart of the soup kitchen’s mission. Ron Bezon’s remarkable leadership enables him and a team of volunteers to provide more than 300 servings, six days a week – starting to cook at 5:30 a.m. and, in rolling shifts throughout the morning, handing out coffee and water; distributing donated Starbucks pastries; and serving the main meal of sandwiches, soup and a treat around 9:00.
Bezon moved to Memphis in 1986 to seek treatment for his then infant son, Kevin, at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Since then, Kevin has endured 16 brain tumors and 50 surgeries. Press clippings about Kevin and his indomitable spirit line the walls of the kitchen, sharing space with the success stories about the nonprofit’s work. Ron Bezon’s presentation to volunteers about service at the soup kitchen, which he has managed since 2002, is intertwined with his personal story. He clearly shares his son’s unflagging optimism and resilience as he encourages volunteers to serve those “precious children of God” patiently waiting in line for a little sustenance.
The St. Mary’s Soup Kitchen is one of 12 organizations that received a grant from GiVE 365 last year. GiVE 365 is a group of charitably-minded Memphians who each give $365 a year, a dollar day, to collectively support local nonprofits. Each year, members of GiVE 365 choose a theme and nonprofits apply for funding based on their fit within that theme, this year’s being “Home is Where the Heart is” – projects to make Memphis neighborhoods more vibrant, livable, and secure.