Updated March 14
Sometimes, when someone is struggling, the simplest act of kindness can make a big difference in that person’s life.
On Martha’s Vineyard, the community goes above and beyond to support those in need, and when Island restaurants and businesses heard that the homeless shelter was in need of food during COVID, they jumped into action.
For years, Harbor Homes shelter coordinator Lisa Belcastro said, the homeless shelter was operating out of Island churches under the auspices of Houses of Grace. All the meals shelter residents received were donated from whatever churches were hosting Community Suppers (a faith-based food donation program) that evening. “That was wonderful, and it worked great. The church dropped off the food, and it was always good,” Belcastro said. “We got our breakfast supplies typically from Joe Capobianco at the Food Bank. It all worked perfectly until COVID hit in 2020.”
The shelter was forced to close for the last two weeks in March 2020 due to a major staff shortage, and public health conditions prohibited shared spaces. When Belcastro was ready to reopen and the shelter team started discussing their upcoming season in August, all the churches were closed, which meant there was no space available to house the homeless.
“That’s when we finally found the Whaling Church,” Belcastro said, which became their new home base. Along with closing their doors, a number of churches were no longer doing Community Suppers, although several programs stuck around. Belcastro would still receive food on Wednesdays from the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury under the direction of the Rev. Cathlin Baker and volunteer Marjorie Pierce. Good Shepherd Parish made food for the shelter on Thursdays, and on Saturdays, Tom Engley of the United Methodist Church would cook up some delicious meals.
At one point, the shelter got a $10,000 donation from the folks at Bad Martha Brewery that was used to purchase a minimum of four meals a week, breakfast every day, and other needed food and beverages. Little Rock was under contract for Sunday morning breakfast. The catering company made tasty quiches for the shelter every Sunday and generously donated rolls, breadsticks, and pies every week. Belcastro contracted with Dip 02539 for breakfasts on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and with Espresso Love for breakfasts Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.
For dinners, Belcastro contracted with restaurants and private chefs that were more than willing to help out and provide meals at a discounted price. The Pawnee House, Edgartown Pizza, Little House Cafe, Tigerhawk Sandwich Co., and several others were tapped. The budget for the shelter was tight, and Belcastro said everyone who provided meals was incredibly generous and accommodating.
Now that Community Suppers and other benevolent food programs are back up and running, Belcastro only has to rely on Island restaurants for dinners on Tuesday nights. Sunday night dinners are provided by St. Andrew’s Church, Monday dinners come from the Federated Church, the First Congregational Church makes dinners for Wednesday, Thursday it’s Good Shepherd Parish, Fridays continue to be Grace Church, and Saturday dinners are whipped up by the Engley and the volunteers at the United Methodist Church.
Last year, for the entire four-month period the shelter was open, Belcastro had paid contracts with restaurants for them to provide food. This year, Belcastro said, the shelter hasn’t paid a cent.
Belcastro remarked on the immense generosity of restaurants and private chefs on Martha’s Vineyard who want to donate their time and their food to the shelter. Engley, for example, has been making dinners that go far beyond the call of duty — food that shows shelter residents they are cared for and thought of.
“The other day, Tom texted me and asked if we wanted some French toast with maple syrup. The staff usually makes scrambled eggs, oatmeal, or cereal on days when we don’t get it from restaurants,” Belcastro said. “It’s amazing when someone like Tom, who is a professional chef who cooked for the Obamas, takes the time out of his day to make our guests something really special.”
The Pawnee House restaurant gave the shelter its absolute top of the line when Belcastro came to them asking for support. Even when Belcastro paid for the meals last year, Pawnee owners Alex Cohen and Debbie Flinner-Cohen charged only a fraction of what their food would cost an everyday customer. “My guests had salmon Wellington. They also had salad and dessert,” Belcastro said. “One time, Deb made individual chicken pot pies in fancy pots, and even made gluten-free and vegan options for people with different food allergies.”
Debbie and Alex said that when Belcastro reached out to them last year to ask for food donations, they were determined to provide food that made the guests of the shelter feel valued and thought of. Before moving to the Island, after living for 14 years in New York City, Debbie said the couple worked with a food delivery program called Meals on Heels that provided delicious and nutritious meals to the elderly and homebound.
“When Lisa asked us to help out, we thought it was really important. For us, it’s the idea that people who are in need are getting fed the same way as people who can go out to eat,” Flinner-Cohen said. “It was never this, ‘Quick, grab whatever we can find’ thing. We really tried to figure out what we could do to make people happy and full, and it never crossed our mind to do anything less.”
Alex said he wants to provide a sense of warmth and humanity with the food he cooks for the homeless, and was filled with pride in his Island community when he saw the outpouring of support from fellow food establishments wanting to exceed expectations and provide meals.
“That’s one of the things we love the most about the Vineyard. It’s such an awesome, tight-knit community where everyone wants to help,” Alex said.
Chef Jimmy Alvarado of Tigerhawk Sandwich Co. was more than happy to provide artisan sandwiches for the shelter. He cooked every Sunday last year, and barely charged Belcastro. When she called to ask him to donate his time and food this year, his response was, “Sign me up.” Little Rock Farm catering also stepped up to the plate, with four-course meals with tasty pies and tons of extra poppy seed rolls. Dos Mas recently donated a hefty portion of beef, chicken, and mushroom tacos, along with a pile of loaded nachos. Another night, they provided beef, chicken, and steak quesadillas for a comprehensive Mexican feast.
For Belcastro, the Island community providing food free of charge to the shelter this year illustrates just how much folks care about their friends and neighbors who may be homeless or housing-insecure. “The food is an indication of the love our community has for all its people. Our guests at the shelter truly feel the kindness and compassion of this community, because they taste it in every bite,” Belcastro said. “These folks aren’t handing my guests a hot dog on a cold bun and saying, ‘Here’s what you get.’ They are cooking these huge meals that say, ‘We care about you, and you are no different from my son, my daughter, or one of my siblings. Whatever your circumstances are in your life right now, and for whatever reason you are there, you still matter, and you matter to me.”
Little Rock Farm owner Peter Koines said he has about 80 or 90 products that the bakery and catering company supplies to supermarkets, farmstands, and Island businesses. Last winter, Koines got a call from Belcastro requesting support for shelter meals. “I started supplying them with quiche on Sunday mornings,” Koines said. “I felt honored that Lisa asked. We get a lot of requests for contributions, and you have to feel through all those and decide which one would contribute the most back to the community.”
Koines said this was more than a worthwhile opportunity for Little Rock Farm to make a difference, but he didn’t want to just give some basic food items to the shelter — he wanted to offer something special. “I wanted to offer something that we do for our catering customers. We did a full meal with some appetizers, a salad, some of our home-baked rolls, meatloaf, mashed potatoes with gravy, and a couple pies for dessert,” Koines said. “Sometimes in our lives we come to a fork in the road. You can go left and reach a certain destination, or go right and it’s a whole different result. If you or I or someone else might have taken a different turn, we might be in that position too.”
Alvarado, a sandwich master and owner of Tigerhawk, said he was immediately willing to contribute food when Belcastro reached out to him asking for help. He committed to 12 weeks in 2020, and said he is always willing to go the extra mile to help out those in need. Alvarado has made some serious meals for shelter residents this year, including crispy garlic green beans with sweet chili fried chicken, and roast pork with garlic broccoli rabe and penne alla vodka. He will continue cooking for the shelter on Tuesdays going forward.
“At one point in my life, I didn’t have what I have now, and I feel very lucky to be where I am. At this point, I feel like I’m in a good position to give back, which has always been my goal,” Alvarado said. “It feels good — it’s an honor to do it.”
Updated to clarify food and monetary contributions made by restaurants and business.