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Every day is a feast at St. Vincent's

For Maura Domeier, it's a plum assignment. No scooping, no sticky orange juice, no dirty dishes. Just full plates and cold, hungry people in need of a little human contact.

"I don't think people really look into their eyes and touch them and say, 'How are you doing?' " Domeier says as she hands out trays recently during lunch service at the St. Vincent de Paul Center.

Domeier exchanges friendly banter with clients, many of whom she recognizes after nearly five years of continued service at the downtown center. She moves quickly, like her fellow volunteers in the kitchen, to get the food into the hands of the hungry.

On this day, St. Vincent de Paul serves 786 trays of hot beef and potato casserole, potato salad and fresh pineapple, along with a slice of bread, doughnut and glass of orange juice.

Many people come through the line two or three times, and at each visit get a warm smile and personal message from Domeier.

"They're people just like you and me and deserving of respect," says Domeier, who volunteers with other members of Sandy's Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church.

At five years, Domeier, Cynthia Reaume and Janet Tetzloff are among the rookies of kitchen manager John Hammond's volunteer team. With 42 groups that rotate faithfully every four weeks, these people are the heart and soul of St. Vincent's daily meal service.

"It would not happen without the volunteers," Hammond says.

Volunteers like Barbara Braak of Salt Lake's St. Ambrose Catholic Church, who has been giving her time for at least 25 years.

"We've been here so long we don't even count the years anymore," Braak says.

It's a grim reminder of what's going on in the world, says the 72-year-old woman, who sees her own children in the faces of the young men and women who line up for lunch each day.

"You have to be here once a month so you connect with reality. If you don't see this, you block it out of your mind."

Not that the images are always easy to digest, especially this time of year.

"Sometimes it's a little depressing," says Lena Vietti, who estimates that she and her husband, Bart, have been volunteering at St. Vincent's for more than 20 years. "I think about them at night and wonder what they're doing."

The couple likes to stick to the back, with Lena placing pastries on the tray and sending it down the line to her husband, who started out the day pouring orange juice before switching to milk when the juice ran out.

"We do the dirty work," says a smiling and sticky Bart Vietti.

During the winter months, St. Vincent's serves an average of 800 meals per day. In the summer, the numbers fluctuate more, with an August high this year of 1,145 trays. The center is operated by Catholic Community Services, though volunteers of all faiths and backgrounds staff the kitchen daily.

Longtime St. Vincent volunteers credit Hammond for developing a fun working atmosphere and an efficient kitchen. The kitchen manager sets the tone of the center, says volunteer Barbara Sluder, and Hammond does a fine job of it.

"There's just kind of a neat feeling when you come down here," she says.

It's a position with routinely high turnover, but Hammond has been at St. Vincent's for two years and has no immediate plans to leave. With 15 years experience managing professional kitchens, Hammond estimates he took a 40 percent pay cut when he came to the center.

But for a recovering addict who's been clean for nine years, the St. Vincent de Paul Center is a good fit. He says he understands the needs of many of the hundreds served there each day.

"Not only does it help me relate, but it doesn't let me forget . . . I think I have empathy for the position that they're in."

Hammond's goal is to serve the "best looking, tastiest food" he can with the resources he has available. Much of the center's food is donated — milk and dairy from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, pastries and doughnuts from various local bakeries, fresh produce from Wild Oats. He plans meals around what he has in stock, not letting any of it go to waste.

"To be perfectly honest, my clients eat better than I can afford to eat myself," he says.

But once the food is made, it's up to the volunteers to get it into the hands of St. Vincent's clients. And this time of year, Hammond says, there is no shortage of people wanting to help — last holiday season he turned away 3,000 would-be volunteers.

"It's wonderful for people to volunteer other times of the year as well," he says. "Holidays are great, but I need help all year long."

Which is why John Collen visits St. Vincent's every Tuesday during his lunch break from the Utah State Tax Commission, something he's been doing for almost 10 years.

"Whenever you run across needy people, they ask, 'Where were you all year long?' " Collen says. "And I like to have an answer for that: 'I was here.' "

Meals at St. Vincent's

The St. Vincent de Paul Center is located at 437 W. 200 South. It serves lunch Monday through Friday, from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Brunch is served each Saturday.

Dinner is also available at the center seven nights a week from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Soup and sandwiches are provided by the Salvation Army.