Union Gospel Mission
The Union Gospel Mission was founded in 1922 and is the oldest soup kitchen north of the Twin Cities. They were established through the partnership of several area churches with the mission to provide food, shelter and hope to local residents. They are more than just a soup kitchen, however. Besides providing meals seven days a week, they have blanket and coat giveaways, a selection of warm clothing during the winter, and personal hygiene products. They host various holiday events for the community, whether it’s a traditional holiday meal, or toys and Santa for Christmas. They also have a small amount of transitional housing on the second floor.
Susan Jordahl-Bubacz, Executive Director, is an inspiring lady who speaks often of human dignity. She and the rest of the staff certainly witness firsthand the struggles people experience, the roadblocks they encounter, the biases they fight, and the reality their clients sometimes need to accept.
Providing “Basic human dignity” as Susan puts it, is the best way to describe what they do. To many people, a meal, a shower and a safe space are just things we take for granted. Imagine not even knowing when your next shower will come. Imagine being un-showered, with no change of clothing. Imagine people caring so little about you that they won’t even look you in the eye. How do you hold down a job when you can’t even take a shower?
And yet, “the people with the least are the most generous”. Susan explains, “They understand the true value of things.”
Amongst what could be overwhelming sadness, are the “small miracles” Susan explains. A man came in with frostbitten feet, in desperate need of warm shoes but needed an uncommon size. That very day a woman was compelled to donate her late husband’s belongings that she’d been resisting letting go of. Amidst the donations, a pair of unused Sorel’s of the exact size they were looking for. There was the chaotic day when her van driver called in sick, and as she was trying to deal with the repercussions, (finding someone to fill in or letting businesses know that food couldn’t be picked up as scheduled) she got a call from a grocery store, that had three cakes to donate, if she could pick them up. Despite her driver issues, she was dismayed as she heard herself agreeing to come and pick them up. She brought the cakes back to the mission and stuck them in the fridge. Later that day a man, clearly struggling to deal with his emotions, came to them in search of help. His elderly mother was dying, and it was her birthday. He wondered if they had some cake mix so he could make her a birthday cake. Susan went to the fridge, and among the cakes she’d picked up, was one that was beautifully decorated with flowers and read “Happy Birthday Mom”.
When you hear these stories, you can’t help but have hope and belief in the mission of their organization. Was it a small miracle or just coincidence when the Union Gospel Mission found the Heart of Hospitality Project? They had provided a large bottle of shampoo to one of their clients, only to have her get attacked for it. She was beaten up badly, over shampoo. Apparently, on the street, an item like this is highly valued and difficult to hide. Smaller bottles, on the other hand, can be hidden easily in a pocket. Thus, the staff decided to reach out to a hotel in hopes of getting some smaller bottles donated. They chose to call the LaQuinta Inn figuring that a hotel up the hill would get less of this type of solicitation. Their timing couldn’t have been more perfect as Cara, the founder of The Heart of Hospitality, told them about the program they had just launched.
The Union Gospel Mission was quickly partnered with the Holiday Inn Downtown, and the hotel almost immediately provided six boxes of amenities, just to start. The mission placed them in a drawer in their lobby, limiting each person to no more than three per day. Those three little bottles were greatly appreciated by those that have nothing, wonder when their next shower might come and see no end in sight. “Sometimes,” Susan said, “hope can come in the smallest packages.” As I was speaking to Susan shortly after receiving the items, she informed me that they were almost all gone. Six boxes…almost all gone in a matter of weeks.
Holiday Inn Downtown
The Holiday Inn in Downtown Duluth is happy to be a partner with the Union Gospel Mission. Lindsey Lindberg, the Executive Housekeeper, had heard hotels outside of Duluth with donation programs but knew there weren’t any in Duluth. She is proud to oversee facilitating the Heart of Hospitality Program for their hotel. It was pretty simple to implement, she explained to me. All they needed were some well-labeled cardboard boxes for collecting and separating the items as housekeeping does their daily routine. Granted there was some getting used to the slight change in the new routine, but separating the items quickly became a habit.
They started collecting used bottles of amenities in December of 2017. By February 2018 they had 6 large boxes ready for a home. Lindsey has heard Susan’s story about shampoo being a hot commodity, and she and her staff feel better about being able to help others instead of tossing things into the waste stream.
Hotels have high standards. They want guests’ experience to be perfect and flawless. The Holiday Inn has a regular turnover of sheets. Even the slightest, tiniest stain makes a sheet unacceptable for further use. In the past, these might be tossed. Sometimes staff would personally collect them and donate them to a local nonprofit. Lately, things have been different. Through the Heart of Hospitality Program, they donated approximately 500 sheets to Goodwill! Lindsey estimated that they end up with 60-80 sheets each month that don’t meet company standards. They will even be replacing pillows throughout the hotel soon. These items will now find “happy homes” through the HOHP.
In fact, the HOHP has made Lindsey’s staff more aware of other things that the hotel might be able to donate. They noticed that people purchase larger bottles of shampoo in their convenience shop and leave those behind. Those bottles are added to the boxes of regular items. They come across items all the time, like lampshades, and think “Should these go in the dumpster, or can someone use these?” Just a minimal effort on their part is certainly having a significant impact on the Union Gospel Mission.