As his 40th birthday approached six years ago, Jason Sidman of Marblehead reflected and knew he wanted to give back to his community. He could never guess that following through on that goal would lead to him becoming president of My Brother’s Table in Lynn during a pandemic.
Nor could he imagine that MBT would provide guests over three million meals since the start of the pandemic, essentially matching the number of meals the soup kitchen had given out in its first 37 years.
Sidman started his service with MBT as a member of its fundraising committee.
“One thing I really wanted to do was broaden the sense of community,” he said. “This is not just a Lynn organization; this is our community,” noting that MBT’s Willow Street location allows guests to come from neighboring cities and towns.
Sidman saw fundraising as a way to get the word out about the mission of North Shore’s largest soup kitchen.
That mission is simple: “to nourish our community every day through hospitality, free meals and unconditional love.”
Achieving the mission for the last 40 years has not been as simple, especially once the pandemic hit.
Sidman has reverted to serving as a MBT board member but led the board from 2019 to 2022.
“The pandemic turned everything upside down,” he recalled. “We really prided ourselves on being a place where our guests could congregate, be cared for and respected, and we couldn’t do that safely, especially at the beginning (of the pandemic lockdown).”
Sidman credits Executive Director Diane Kuzia Hills with her “unbelievable” leadership during the lockdown.
“We needed to reconceptualize the way we do this,” he said, adding that Kuzia Hills led the small staff, board members and volunteers through what would not only be an unprecedented demand for meals but also in volunteer engagement.
At a time when most people hunkered down at home and isolated from the public, MBT continued its mission, never closing, and instead extending their hours. This was a difficult undertaking for the dedicated small staff of four to five.
One of the board’s solutions to ease the burden on the staff while also engaging much-needed volunteers was to ask people to provide lunch bags filled with meals of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, snacks and a drink.
“We used the website Sign Up Genius, and the response to that was unbelievable,” Sidman said. “It was amazing to see how quickly the slots (for donations) filled up.”
Guests were allowed to take as many meals as they needed, as some were taking meals for others who could not get out during the pandemic.
Thankfully, monetary donations during the pandemic also increased because the jump in need was just as unbelievable.
“The first time I was really shocked was in March or April of 2020,” Sidman said. “The previous year, we provided about 16,000 meals that month. That year (2020) we provided over 75,000 that same month, and then the next month the number of meals was higher and then higher, exceeding 100,000 meals a month.”
In fact, in the 40-year history of MBT, half of the meals were served in the soup kitchen’s first 37 years and the other half in the last three years.
“That gives you a sense of how many people are on the cusp of really needing help,” Sidman said.
As of last week, the exact number of meals MBT had served was 6,645,877.
My Brother’s Table serves meals without seeking or receiving federal, state or local funding. This is done to ensure privacy of the guests, in keeping with the mission focus of unconditional love and respect.
As of last week, the organization had been open for 13,000 consecutive days, thanks to staff, volunteers and donations.
“That was the amazing thing about the pandemic,” Sidman said. “We had record-breaking fundraising as people were keeping up with what we were doing, recognizing it had a direct impact, and they knew (donations) were going to a good place.”
Sidman has interviewed some of those donors in videos to share on social media and said speaking with younger volunteers is a highlight of his work with the Table.
“There are so many negative stories in the world, and it’s heartwarming, positive and very optimistic that kids are this thoughtful this young,” he said, citing the example of two Swampscott youngsters who made masks during lockdown and donated all the proceeds to MBT.
Currently, meals are still being provided without the benefit of the original setup, which allowed guests to sit down and socialize for a bit. Guests can take to-go meals or visit four food stations. MBT recently received a grant from Mass. General Brigham, which will be used to improve the cafeteria space. Sidman and the board are looking forward to reviving the social aspect of sitdown meals while keeping guests, staff and volunteers safe.
The soup kitchen began in 1982 after one of the founders looked out the window and saw people cooking a can of beans on a trash can and thought, “This isn’t okay.”
More than six million meals later, the focus on dignity and caring with love remains, Sidman said.
Sidman would also like people to know that MBT’s guests may not be who they think they are.
“I would really encourage people to broaden their minds about who we are serving,” he said, adding MBT guests include working professionals, college students and families experiencing food insecurity.
To learn more about donating or volunteering for My Brother’s Table, visit mybrotherstable.org.