Panorama Donation (Literally) Helps Serve Olympia’s Homeless

Seven days a week, a rotating crew of volunteers serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner to Olympia’s homeless population at the Salvation Army shelter in downtown Olympia. While the food donations keep coming, lately the shelter has been facing a different challenge – a shortage of silverware.

“We were down to about 64 forks and 28 knives,” says former Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro. Munro organized a group of friends and neighbors who volunteer at the shelter once a month.

He’s also a Panorama board member. When the retirement community’s restaurant went through a renovation, he thought creatively and called President and CEO, Joseph Di Santo.

panorama donation
Former Secretary of State Ralph Munro holds one of the forks donated by Panorama to the Salvation Army’s Olympia shelter.

“We were buying all new utensils and glassware and china,” says Di Santo. “I told Ralph that whatever I have now, which is probably enough to feed 250 people, I’d be more than happy to donate to the Salvation Army.”

As a result, the shelter ended up with all of Panorama’s flatware and utensils. “This is very valuable stuff to us because it’s utilitarian but it’s nice,” says Munro.  “It’s going to last a long time. This is a great donation.”

Di Santo brought the donation to the shelter in person on January 19, 2016 and stayed to help Munro’s crew serve meals. “It was exhilarating,” he says. “My background is in hotel and restaurants. It felt good to get behind the counter.”

He hopes the donation will last for a long while. “It’s good stuff. I really feel for those people and I was very happy to be able to do this,” Di Santo says.  “It gave me a very good feeling.”

Since retiring as Secretary of State in 2001, Munro has continued to volunteer with local organizations as a board member and in other capacities. He started serving meals a few years ago. One Tuesday a month, a group of friends, neighbors, and members of the Cornerstone Church in West Olympia buy and prepare the food they will serve for dinner. “We try to serve meat every month,” he says. “Tonight we had brisket and tri-tip. The most popular meal we serve in the summer months is hamburgers and hot dogs. Everybody loves those. We barbecue them outside.”

panorama donation
Joseph Di Santo, President and CEO of Panorama, stands in the center of a group of volunteers, holding dishes donated by Panorama.

Drug issues are rare, he says. In some cases, those visiting the Salvation Army shelter will clearly be wrestling with mental health challenges. Occasionally, he’ll encounter someone he knew in his previous life.

In general, he’s been impressed with how appreciative everyone is. “They’re very polite, they’re very nice, and they’re thankful,” Munro says. “Many of them come in and say they appreciate this very much. Mostly, I think they are people who are down on their luck. You can see that some of them are sick or have been sick and maybe because of that have lost everything. Nobody is a trouble maker or anything like that. They’re wonderful people.”

Different groups of volunteers take turns serving meals at the shelter, which Munro calls “the most ecumenical place in town. You see every kind of group here,” he says. “Everybody cooperates. Catholic Community Services runs the kitchen. Salvation Army runs the shelter and the upstairs. This is an amazing place.”

Churches of all faiths from Latter Day Saints to Lutherans, teams of state workers, and community groups like Munro’s fill the slots to make sure the meals keep coming. A partial list includes the Lacey Lunch Crew, First Baptist Church, St. Michael’s Parish, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, the State Liquor and Cannabis Board, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Four Square Church, the Cooper Dinner Crew and St. John’s Episcopal Church.

salvation army
Rotating crews of volunteers serve hundreds of meals every day at the Olympia shelter.

Often the volunteers will see the same faces every month. “There are a lot of moms with little kids,” Munro explains. “Sometimes you can tell that this is their one meal of the day. We serve seconds and thirds until we run out of food. They can have as much as they want to eat. I think most groups try to do that.”

Among the volunteers, sometimes his group will include teenagers who’ve been court-ordered to perform community service. “They’re good kids who’ve made a mistake and done something stupid,” says Munroe.  “Washing dishes is all part of growing up.”

The experience serves as a monthly reminder of how a lot of people have to live, Munro reflects. “There have been some nights here when it’s blowing and raining and cold, and you wonder, ‘Where are those people going when they leave?’ It’s pretty scary.”

At the same time, he finds deep satisfaction in the process. “It’s the most rewarding thing I do,” Munro says in summary. “It’s right at the heart of what life is really all about. Life isn’t happening in a movie theater or on television. It’s right here.” 

To learn more about volunteering, contact the Salvation Army at (360)352-8596 or visit www.olympia.salvationarmynw.org.

To thank Panorama for their donation, visit www.panorama.org.

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