Since 1982, Part of the Solution has been working to help people on the margins.
It’s a warm autumn day in the Bronx, and the dining room at Part of the Solution (POTS), an emergency food and social service provider, is full. Since 10 a.m. scores of people have been lined up on Webster Avenue, just across the street from Fordham’s Rose Hill campus, waiting for the dining room to open. The lunchtime crowd includes homeless men, young women with small children, and working Bronxites who can’t afford groceries. Families and individuals sit at seven tables covered in red-and-white checkered tablecloths, as volunteers serve food from the restaurant-style kitchen to each guest.
Patrick Janeczko and Danielle Rutsky are in the dining room for the first time. The two Fordham undergraduates learned about POTS in late September at a volunteer fair on campus sponsored by Fordham’s Dorothy Day Center for Service and Justice.
“You see a lot more regular, working people here than you would expect,” Janeczko says, as he gathers silverware. Rutsky is struck by the contrast between the comfortable lives of many Fordham students and the poverty of POTS’s guests. “This is so close to Fordham,” she says. “It’s very enlightening.”
In a neighborhood where the median income is $26,000 a year and the unemployment rate is 12 percent, POTS operates seven days a week, offering people in crisis a place to find succor and start moving toward stability. Last year, the organization served 160,000 meals, making it the largest emergency food service provider in the Bronx.
But POTS is far more than a soup kitchen. Guests get help with immediate and long-term needs. There is the daily meal and a food pantry, a barbershop, and a no-fee doctor’s office. Homeless people can get their mail, take a hot shower, and clean their clothes. POTS social workers help clients navigate the rocky shoals of welfare bureaucracy, signing families up for food stamps and helping veterans and disabled people enroll in federal benefits programs. People who have received an eviction notice or live in substandard housing, whose public benefits have been suspended, or who have immigration problems can get free advice in the legal clinic. The organization helps 20,000 people a year, 6,000 of them children.
“Poverty is a complex problem,” says Christopher Bean, POTS’s executive director. “To be able to work with individuals in all these angles allows us to have an impact.”Since opening in 1982, POTS has maintained a close relationship with Fordham. On any given day, Fordham graduates and students can be found throughout the airy, bright three-story building. Several alumni are on staff, and one, Francis Conroy, GSB ’79, serves on the organization’s board of directors. Student interns learn social work and nonprofit management skills there. Professors send classes to study and work at POTS as part of their service-learning courses. And a steady stream of volunteers serves in the dining room.
It’s a relationship Jack Marth, FCRH ’86, director of programs, says is deeply valuable to the organization. “We would not be able to exist without a lot of volunteers,” he says. “Having a neighbor like Fordham, with students ready, willing, and able to volunteer, allows us to operate.”
Marth was a Fordham freshman in 1982, when POTS was just a tiny storefront soup kitchen. He volunteered to help, working closely with Ned Murphy, S.J., GSAS ’66, one of the organization’s three co-founders. Marth says that experience grounded his education. He was studying Catholic social teaching in the classroom at Fordham and practicing solidarity at POTS.
“Being at POTS was an opportunity to sit down and get to know the people better,” he says, “not just hand them a plate, but to get to know the reality of the people we serve. Father Ned used to say, ‘There is no us and them, it’s we. We’re somehow in this together.’ That’s a message POTS still wants to impart to the students who serve here.”
Marth joined the staff of POTS a few years after graduating from Fordham. He worked in the dining room and helped with renovations, then left to work at another nonprofit and earn a law degree. He returned to POTS in 2000 to start the legal clinic.
Today that clinic is led by Scott Wagner, a 2010 Fordham Law graduate. “My job is to try to create an environment that’s conducive to the clients getting services in an atmosphere that is dignified and warm,” he says. “Hopefully our response is one where we prioritize each human being as an individual.”
That compassionate approach to serving people in need appeals to Harrison Pidgeon, a Fordham senior who has been volunteering at POTS since his freshman year.
“I came here with Urban Plunge,” he says, referring to Fordham’s pre-orientation volunteer service program. “I knew I wanted to be part of this. Ultimately, I can never have the perspective of someone going through financial difficulty, but I can be here and eat a meal with them.”
Tucked behind the first-floor dining room at POTS is a pantry that provides groceries to 5,700 families a year. Using a voucher that accords credits based on family size, guests shop among shelves filled with pasta, dry beans, oatmeal, and brown rice, and refrigerators stocked with fresh eggs and produce.
For the past year, Pidgeon has been coming to POTS for Family Club. The 12-week program invites a total of 24 families to meet once a week, on Sundays or Wednesdays. Kids get help with their homework, while adults are paired with case managers who help them set goals and untangle impediments to economic and emotional progress. The centerpiece is a cooking class. Adults learn to make a delicious, nutritious meal, and go home with the ingredients to replicate it on their own. At the end of the evening, everyone shares a meal—together.
Pidgeon, a biology and Spanish major who hopes to become a doctor in a developing country, is as much tutor as big brother, playing easily with young kids and joking around with teenagers. He says POTS feels like home.
“Service has always been a part of my life, but the reason I’ve stayed with the Family Club is I know the kids now,” Pidgeon says. “I have a connection to the Bronx now as a place where I live.”
—Eileen Markey, FCRH ’98, a Bronx-based freelance writer, volunteered at POTS on her first day as a Fordham student. It’s where she met her husband.