Noticing Neighbors Thelma’s Kitchen


Over 30 years ago, Thelma and her husband Father Alexii Altschul began outreach work spreading kindness along Troost. No matter what Thelma had, she shared it with those around her. Her kindness and spirit led her to give in many ways, namely by feeding her neighbors when they were hungry. Thelma’s Kitchen is a continuation of that spirit. In the pay what you can café, neighbors can buy, donate, and enjoy nutritious meals that support the sharing of resources. These resources include community initiatives, social & mental health programs, and economic opportunities⁠⁠—all offered by Reconciliation Services. All the shared meals and shared resources bring us to today: Celebrating the third birthday of Thelma’s Kitchen! I got the chance to talk with Jodi Mathews and hear all about the community café.


Hayley: How has Thelma’s Kitchen used its mission to evolve during this past year? Jodi:

Before covid, Thelma's Kitchen meant sitting around community tables with neighbors, sharing food together and volunteering together. Since covid has kind of upended the entire world, we are now offering a box lunch. We installed a to-go window where neighbors can come and get a healthy meal. They are still able to donate what they can, and we also have Pay It Forward Tokens to cover lunches for neighbors who aren't able to make a donation.


Hayley: How else can people donate?


Jodi:

We also have our boxed lunches available for groups to order. When a group or an individual pays full price for a lunch, it helps pay it forward for a neighbor who is food insecure.


Hayley:

That's amazing. How did Thelma’s Kitchen start? And can you explain the namesake?


Jodi:

So the kitchen is an initiative of Reconciliation Services and we have been doing racial and economic reconciliation work in this community for 30 years. From the very beginning, the work centered around food and community. Thelma, who is the namesake of Thelma's Kitchen, was a co-founder of Reconciliation Services along with her husband.


Many years ago, when they first met one another, she was not running an organized nonprofit. She was simply being a good neighbor and showing people around her love.



Part of how she did that is to care for their physical needs. So feeding them when they were hungry, bringing them into her home when they didn't have anywhere to go—she truly was just living out of the idea of loving your neighbor. So she and her husband started working together on this, which is neat because they came from completely different worlds.

Hayley: How’s that? Jodi: She was an African-American woman living in the urban core. She was in Section 8 housing, and struggling to have enough for herself while sharing what she had with others. Her husband, David, who would later become Father Aleksi, was a white guy from Johnson County that sold insurance. He just had this compelling desire to go where he could make a difference and help people.

They ended up meeting and working together on this initiative to help people. Getting people access to services early on it literally was just them asking: “What do you need? Oh, you need that. OK, let's see if we can figure it out. How can we help you with that? You need food. OK, we can get food.” It truly was going door to door with a clipboard and surveying neighbors to figure out how they could help out.

Hayley:

How did that effort become Thelma’s Kitchen? Jodi: In 2019, we opened Thelma's Kitchen. Prior to that, we had many different food initiatives: some being a pantry and a Friday night community meal. What we realized was that after a year and a half of serving our neighbors, part of what they really wanted was quality retail—something that felt like theirs.


Hayley: Some community ownership. Jodi:

Exactly. For those of you that don't know this area, Troost is on the verge of really being a completely different place. And in a lot of ways it’s because of the development. Not that the development is bad, but our neighbors were concerned if there would be something that was accessible and available to them. So we shifted from doing a free community meal one night a week, to offering a donate what you can café for lunch through the week.

Thelma's Kitchen is built on the idea that everybody's going to eat regardless of their ability to pay, and the other side of that is we recognize that people value what they're invested in. In order for us to work towards reconciliation in the community, we had to invite our neighbors to participate with us. We want our neighbors to be on equal footing with a Hallmark executive walking in to have lunch, so that they have ownership in the café. This is a place for them, we value them, and we treat them with dignity.


Their ability to pay isn't something that sets them apart in our space. Those that weren't able to donate financially, could also donate time. I loved it when the café was open, people would walk right in and volunteer! I would walk up past the bus stop and say hi to people we know. They would meet me and say, “I'm here ready to volunteer today!” It was a very beautiful, organic, holistic, community gathering place. But since we're all working together, covid shifted things. We're still doing food, we still invite our neighbors to volunteer—we just have to plan things out a little more than we were in the beginning. Hayley: It’s incredible you’ve kept every part of it up and running. Jodi: Oh absolutely, it’s all still there. The opportunity to volunteer is still there. The opportunity for food is still there in the box.

The box lunch is kind of an exciting way to make it even more accessible, in some ways. People can take it to-go and then get on the bus, they can take a few boxes and take it home to their kids that might be back at the house.


Hayley:

There is something to that idea of everyone being on equal footing. Food seems like the natural place for that. This next question is a very broad question and you can answer it however you like. How have you seen goodness in your experience at the café?


Jodi:

I can think of a few examples of how I have seen it over the last few years. Thelma’s Kitchen has helped us accomplish our mission in the community to create connections. When the café was open and there was that opportunity to walk in and volunteer, it was open to everybody. We had, oh I miss him, Dave. He was a neighbor nearby who would come in, and he had some mental and physical disabilities, but he loved to wash dishes.


We actually did an interview with him. You can go watch it on our website, because it's just lovely. Dave came every single day and he would wash dishes and still make his donation of five dollars, or whatever he had, because he wanted the next person to have that. So even though he was volunteering, and Dave lives on a fixed income, he would walk with his walker from his house nearby and donate.


He's a great example of somebody who could walk into another space and people might not get how much he has to offer. But for us we say, “Great! You want to help with dishes?” It's his place with his friends, here.

Here’s another example. One day, I walked out into the café space, where there are these very long community tables. We have lots of small tables too, but there are these big, long community tables. We would always encourage people to sit at the community table because you never know who you'll sit next to or get to talk to! I walked out one day and saw these older white women sitting at a table enjoying their lunch, and they were sitting across from these two middle aged, younger black men in construction clothes. There's always construction going on around us here.

They were all sitting together and having this conversation. I asked how lunch was going, and they all said it was good. So I asked if they knew each other, and they all told me that no, they didn’t. But the ladies told me that they sat down, and then the young men sat down next to them and had this great conversation over lunch.

It’s all just because proximity introduced an opportunity to get to know somebody. That proximity of inviting everybody in, no matter what, opens your eyes to the possibility of what real relationships look like. Hayley:

Sounds like you all invite that intention, too. Jodi: It's very easy to pick, you know, the café that meets all of your needs. When anyone comes to a place like Thelma's, you really are making a choice to put yourself in proximity to people that might be different than you. It can be a positive opportunity.

I can tell you twenty thousand stories, but here’s one more. When the to-go window opened we would still see some of our regular friends and neighbors. We just didn't have the opportunity to be with them, as they were coming and going.

There was a young man who's a regular and always made a donation for his box lunch. One day, he walked by the window and Randy, our café manager, hollered out to him, “Hey! We’ve missed you!” Because he had been coming regularly. Then the man said, “I don't have any money today.” So Randy told him, “I’ve got you, man. I’ve paid for tokens. I got your lunch today.” The man was very timid about it. He did not like the idea that he couldn't pay anything for his lunch. But Randy assured him and told him please, I want to do this. So the man took the lunch, and moved on. A few days later, he came back up to the window. And of course, Randy's excited to see him and welcome him back.


The man puts down money for himself. Then he said, “I also want to buy the guy behind me his lunch for today.” Those are the kind of the things we see in the day to day that show just how good this mission around community food can be. It can have this ripple effect to where our neighbors become advocates for one another. They want to share what they have, even if it's a little. They want to make sure that the person behind them gets lunch.


Hayley:

If someone wants to get involved, how can they join you?



Jodi:

So the best way is joining what we're doing for our birthday month! August is the birthday month for Thelma's Kitchen, and we're 3 years old! So we have a birthday giving challenge right now: We're looking for corporations and businesses to help us continue this work of supporting the community in this way, and we're also asking for neighbors to buy Pay It Forward Tokens through our website! That way we have them available at the window. Hayley: What’s the target goal? Jodi: We're trying to get 1,000 tokens. On our website there are opportunities to pay for tokens, and to join in the giving challenge. There's also opportunities to sign up for volunteering!

We have lots of volunteer slots open earlier in the morning when prepping for the day. We are doing our best to be covid safe, and we've had volunteers all through the pandemic. Our space is set up so that volunteers can come be socially distanced, masked, and still have meaningful work to do on site. We love being able to serve one another in that way, so we're not missing out on connection. We really rely on volunteers. Almost 90% of the work that happens in the café space is done by volunteers, so anyone can come on down and get involved.