A Job with a Purpose to Help Those in Need

Thomas Perry, director of Cathedral Community Cares at St. John the Divine, dedicates his career to the service of others

| 10 Jan 2022 | 03:08

“Every day, I come to work and say, ‘How do we make a difference to help someone?’” said Thomas Perry, director of Cathedral Community Cares. As part of St. John the Divine’s outreach efforts, the organization’s mission is to alleviate poverty, with a focus on hunger and health.

Its labors of love include assisting those out of jail with resumes, serving meals to the food insecure at their soup kitchen and allocating the donations made to their clothing closet. His involvement with the program began close to 20 years ago when he started as a volunteer washing dishes, and in 2016, he was honored with the title of director, overseeing all its philanthropic work. When asked what their biggest need is at the moment, he noted that with the winter season upon us, it is providing handwarmers, scarves and gloves to individuals who are waiting for food in their now, due to COVID, outdoor to-go soup kitchens.

Perry, who grew up in Harlem, on 142nd and Riverside Drive, was born in the Bronx and now lives in his native borough, in its University Heights neighborhood. A proud New Yorker, he has witnessed the generosity of his city. “You’re always going to find someone who’s willing to help you. It’s just a matter of where and when,” he said. And at CCC, which has a full-time staff of three along with 30 volunteers consisting of a weekly group from New York Cares as well as members of the church’s congregation, there is always someone there to help.

As for the demographic of those who attend their soup kitchen, which is open on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and averages 275 to 380 people a day, he said he definitely notices a change because of the pandemic. “In the very beginning [we] had a lot of single, male individuals in need. We did have some military individuals,” he explained. “But now, since COVID, we’ve been dealing mostly with families.”

Tell us how you got your start at CCC.

A friend of mine, he was a chef, and he wanted me to come with him. And I didn’t know anything about cooking, and it just turned out that I came to help every Sunday. I came for about three Sundays in a row and I was washing dishes. And I ran into George McCloud, he ran the kitchen, and he was like, “Are you interested in learning how to cook?” At first I wasn’t. I love to eat, so if I have to wash dishes, it is what it is. I didn’t want to do all the sweaty work. But then he was like, “No, it’s fun.” And I sat there and that’s how I learned. And that’s how I got the little bug where it’s just like, “It’s an opportunity. If I love to eat good food, I’m gonna share it and give it to others too.”

What does your role as director entail? How has it changed with COVID?

It has changed. We have a person who’s in charge of the clothing closet and a person who’s in charge of the soup kitchen. We link up every two days, just to make sure we have enough volunteers, food and clothing. Based on the weather, we look at different options ... Are we going to give out gloves, hats, scarves? ... Since we’re dealing with a lot of seniors, how to give the food out earlier, when they don’t have to stand on line. That’s what my job is, just trying to figure it out.

I read about the pop-up mobile food outreach program for seniors. What is that exactly?

It’s a branch of Food Bank [for New York City], so they have starch, meat, fresh vegetables and fruits. And you bring a shopping cart, you come in, they fill up your cart and they tell you to come back next month. The only qualification for it is you have to be over 64 and you have to prove it with ID. We found out about it because we were looking to do our own pantry ... And they said, “We’re actually looking for an area. Can you sponsor us?” ... They see about 140 people a month, which is pretty good for one day. It’s pretty impressive.

What are the rules for the clothing closet? Have they changed because of COVID?

It changed in the very beginning, we’re talking in March and April [when] we weren’t taking any clothing because of the unknown. We have four steamers, so it was just like, “Do we steam everything? We’re not too sure. I’m not a chemist. I’m not a doctor.” So we took a break from getting clothing. We’re back to getting clothing, but we’re looking at not stuff that’s been worn like 50 percent. We’re looking at stuff that’s been worn maybe 25 percent of the time. And we’re in a great neighborhood, on the Upper West Side. We get a chance to get a little bit of everything from college students, which sometimes is good and sometimes is bad. You get college kids who don’t care and [say], “This is my dirty laundry, take it,” or you get a college kid who has clothing that’s like, “My parents bought this. I never used it.” So you find some gold and sometimes you find the opposite.

Tell us a memorable story about someone who has been helped by CCC.

We had a gentleman from the military. And he came in; he had his family with him. And I’m just so sad that we’re the United States of America and we have individuals who served our country and they have to come rely on us, which is fine, but it shouldn’t be that way. It should be at a higher standard for these guys and women, because they risked their lives ... But he came in with his family and his thing was, “Hey, I just want to get something to eat for my daughter and my wife.” And I’m thinking to myself, “You’re a team. It’s a team of three. We got to supply everything for everyone.” His thing was like, “No, I just make sure that they’re ok. I’m gonna be all right.”

And it’s funny, he came for breakfast, this is before COVID. One of the volunteers actually heard his story, and he was like, “I can help this guy.” I said, “What do you mean?” He was like, “I own a supermarket. Introduce me.” And he was like to him, “Listen, I’m here to help you. I appreciate everything you’ve done for our country. Whatever you need, I got you.” And the gentleman from the military was like, “Listen, it’s not just me. I got other friends who were in the military who are struggling too.” And they got together, he brought them to the store and he let them do shopping. And I get it, where you just want to make a small difference. And the small difference could be anything. A lot of people on the train beg for money, but some people don’t want money, they actually want a meal. And if you have a sandwich or half a sandwich, they’re willing to take it.

How can people who are reading this help? What are you most in need of now?

So everyone’s gonna say money. With us, I’ll give you the perfect example. This Sunday, we knew it was gonna be 30 degrees. And my issue is, individuals standing outside, we need to get them gloves, we need to get them handwarmers, scarves. We have great companies that donate. We have Bombas that donates great stuff, they’ve been giving us socks, which are a blessing. But it’s just weird — we try to reach out to other companies and it’s impossible to get in touch with like Nike and North Face. They’re exclusive brands, but it’s just like, “We know you guys got stuff you can’t sell. You’re telling me we can’t get a jacket from you? We can’t get five jackets?” Even if we have to pay a wholesale price.

What are your future plans?

I think I want to go back to school, maybe get a business degree. We have grant writers and individuals who come in to help us with writing grants, and I just think I need to give more input into that. And I think maybe education would be the key for that. And then for Cathedral Community Cares, we’re starting a food pantry, which we’re opening on January 22. We’re doing a soft opening with 10 families for one day and the following week, we’re going to do it with another 10 families. Our future goal probably would be looking to serve 15 to 20 families a day.

To learn more, visit www.stjohndivine.org/education/community