After pointing out the grease in the kitchen and the grime in the basement, the scuff marks on the dining room walls and the scratches on the ancient oak floors and a bathroom sink so dirty it needs a sandblaster, Maggie Stuckey remembered something else about The Gathering Place.
A small metal box on the porch.
The locked box containing a key for the soup kitchen’s front door — the box opened by a combination lock with letters instead of numbers.
It’s not there anymore, but when the 30-year-old was a girl she’d turn the dials, spelling out the magic word: H. O. P. E.
Maggie has lots of memories of volunteering in the old brick mansion that became a sanctuary at suppertime.
Her family belonged to Westminster Presbyterian Church, and the second Friday of every month was Gathering Place night.
The grownups served a hot meal to Lincoln’s hungry.
Maggie and her sister Emily had their own tasks. Staffing the day-old bread table. Loading the giant dishwasher. Sweeping. Going down to the “scary basement” to haul half-gallons of milk upstairs.
So last fall, when she saw Scrubbing Bubbles was holding a contest for nonprofits, she filled out an online application, explaining in 250 words why The Gathering Place deserved a $10,000 spring cleaning.
“It was the first place I thought of,” said Maggie, a grant specialist at the Arbor Day Foundation. “There’s a big need in this beautiful old house.”
She pushed send, and then it slipped her mind until her phone rang last month.
Maggie was at the soup kitchen Friday morning with its executive director, Michael Ryan, explaining what’s happened since she got that call from an ad agency in Chicago telling her The Gathering Place was chosen as one of nine finalists out of hundreds in the contest.
“It was a wonderful surprise,” said Michael.
Because feeding, not cleaning, is their first priority. Volunteers sweep after meals, the cook scrubs, and youth groups come four or five times a year to tackle bigger projects, but it’s hard to keep ahead.
Just for making the cut, the soup kitchen will receive $500.
“Five hundred is a big number in our world,” said Michael.
The former nursing home director has been director of the soup kitchen for a decade. Churches and individuals give money to keep it afloat.
But they can always use more. Last spring, Michael ran 31 miles in honor of the nonprofit’s 31st birthday to raise cash.
This spring, he plans to run 32.
He’s the soup kitchen’s only full-time employee; a part-time cook is paid for two hours a night, Monday through Friday.
And each of those nights, more than 100 people come for a meal. Balanced, hot, hospitable.
Men, women, little kids.
Maggie has a memory of one little girl.
The girl came in with her mother. Maggie was sitting at the bread table with the day-old rolls and cookies and pastries. They locked eyes, the girl handing out food, the girl needing food.
After she ate, the girl walked over and studied the treats, then chose some to take home.
A girl her age, in her town. And more girls, and boys, every month.
“It was pretty powerful as a child to see children my age here," Maggie said. "It didn’t seem right, and I think I’ve carried that since then.”
She said those things when an ad agency man from Chicago came to shoot video for a 30-second spot.
He filmed Maggie in the kitchen, and followed Michael through the house as he pointed out the dirt.
A patina of grime around the baseboards, the finish worn off the oak floors, black marks on white walls, kitchen tile dulled from grease, dusty basement walls.
Maggie volunteered all through grade school and later with her youth group. She still helps coordinate the church’s Souper Bowl fundraiser to raise money for The Gathering Place.
And Westminster still serves the second Friday of the month.
Maggie's Friday nights there shaped her perspective on hunger and food insecurity at a young age.
She hopes Lincoln will vote for The Gathering Place on the Scrubbing Bubbles website — once a day, every day, until April 15.
The top four finishers all win the $10,000 cleaning.
And all four nonprofits — and the people who nominated them — will appear on “The Queen Latifah Show” to tell her audience how important their nonprofits are to their towns.
How they provide full stomachs, and hope for the hungry.
Something Maggie has known for a long, long time.
Reach Cindy Lange-Kubick at 402-473-7218 or email@example.com.