A second helping of kindness

July 12, 2016

Lisle, Illinois ~ Josie (Mari Sponsler) McCarthy was living among the homeless when she came up with an idea for a restaurant that would welcome everyone with open arms and a side of respect.

McCarthy was living at the St. Francis Catholic Worker House in Chicago as part of a social service project. While there, she befriended two older prostitutes and walked around the neighborhood with them.

“I had never seen such poverty,” recalled McCarthy, who attended Benedictine from 1972-74. “One day we were walking past a Thai food restaurant and I said ‘Oh, I love Thai food,’ and one of the ladies told me that she hadn’t been inside a restaurant in 12 years. I said, ‘Really? Why?’ and she said, ‘Just look at me, who would ever serve me?’”

The woman’s response struck a chord with McCarthy. On New Year’s Day that year, she prepared an entire meal, packed up her wedding china, put on a waitress apron and headed to the Catholic worker house.

“After I served them, I sat down and joined them,” McCarthy said. “That same lady said to me, ‘When you go back to your fancy life, tell people about us. Get them to like us, then maybe they will help us.’”

Back at home, McCarthy would think about the shelter and the woman she served. She even tried to track her down, but learned she had frozen to death on the streets. It wasn’t until after working as a group specialist at a psychiatric hospital in Indiana and working in group homes in Ireland that she was finally able to put her plan for the restaurant into action.

From soup kitchen to restaurant

She found a job as family dinner program manager with FOOD For Lane County in Eugene, Ore., in 2006.

The position allowed her to be closer to her family on the West Coast, while overseeing a program that was serving meals to the homeless out of a former downtown Eugene restaurant. The only problem at the time was that it wasn’t being run like a restaurant.

“It felt like an outdated slop line from the Depression,” McCarthy said. “I kept thinking about that lady from the streets, and my goal was to have a place where people could sit down. They really didn’t have a restaurant they could go to and that’s what I wanted for them.”

Before she could transform it into a restaurant, she had to teach volunteers how to interact with the clientele, and get buy-in from area businesses and city officials.

While volunteers were supportive of her efforts, many had grown accustomed to the counter separating them from the homeless they served. To help break down that barrier, McCarthy encouraged volunteers to get to know patrons by name and learn one thing about them they could like.

Today, the restaurant, known as “The Dining Room,” operates with a commercial kitchen, professional chef, floor manager and volunteers who take customers’ orders. The only difference is guests don’t have to pay before leaving. The restaurant is open four days a week and seats up to 40 patrons at a time.

There’s usually a line out the door before opening. The first group will be seated, while others will be given a reservation ticket. A maximum of 300 can be served each day.

Inside the restaurant, flowers are set on tablecloths. A variety of local musicians perform live sets. Entrées include items such as pork chops, vegetarian options, salads, beverages and desserts.Running the restaurant requires a daily volunteer staff of 25, but there is no shortage of workers. There is currently an active pool of 270 people McCarthy can call on for a shift.

“It took a while, but it was really about getting the city on board with what I was doing,” McCarthy said. “Food distribution is not just handing someone a box of food— especially when they do not have a kitchen.”

Life of service

McCarthy’s philosophy— to be kind and treat everyone with dignity and respect— is something she learned as one of the youngest in a large Catholic family and while growing into adulthood at Benedictine University.

“When I was young, I saw from my parents that it was the right thing to do, to help people,” McCarthy said.

Benedictine helped continue this philosophy.

“Benedictine was great. It was a small-town type of college,” McCarthy added. “You knew the teachers and you had a sense of community. I had some great teachers. You felt that people cared and there was a true sense of social justice that we were encouraged to get involved with.”

McCarthy’s unconventional approach and wide range of experiences meshed with her vision for The Dining Room, where she manages all aspects of the restaurant and greets more than 1,000 people a week.Those who arrive at the restaurant may live in cars or various camps and have gone months without a change of clothes or a shower. Some of them are veterans, others have serious mental disorders or have served time in prison.

“Poverty does not discriminate, all are weary,” McCarthy said. “I knew I had to raise the bar as far as the environment so that the guests could transition into The Dining Room in a respectful manner, and it’s worked out exactly how I wanted. My job really was to tell people about the homeless and get them to like them so that they could help people as that woman had asked me to do many years ago.”

Word about The Dining Room has attracted media attention and food service workers from across the country who want to visit to learn how they can transform their soup kitchens into similar restaurants.

“We serve some of the most dangerous folks with poor impulse control, yet we remain a peaceful and safe program,” McCarthy said. “It is a success that others want to apply in their own communities.

“Our homeless depend on us,” she added. “How can I be comfortable with myself if my neighbor is hungry? Here, they can depend on a good meal and a guarantee that they will be welcomed just like anyone else.”

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 Benedictine University is located in Lisle, Illinois, just 25 miles west of Chicago, and has branch campuses in Springfield, Illinois, and Mesa, Arizona. Founded as a Catholic university in 1887, Benedictine enrolls nearly 10,000 students in 56 undergraduate and 19 graduate programs. Forbes magazine named Benedictine among "America's Top Colleges" for the fifth consecutive year in 2015. A 2016 PayScale Inc. report ranked BenU one of the top 10 colleges in Illinois for return on investment and in the top 20 percent nationally. Accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (hlcommission.org). For more information, contact (630) 829-6300, admissions@ben.edu or visit ben.edu.

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