Cornerstone cook sees many benefits to volunteering

By Steve Smith - Staff Writer
Vernon - posted Thu., Mar. 28, 2013
Jeremy Ryan spends about 15 hours per week cooking lunch at the Cornerstone Foundation in Rockville. Photo by Steve Smith.
Jeremy Ryan spends about 15 hours per week cooking lunch at the Cornerstone Foundation in Rockville. Photo by Steve Smith.

Helping others can often be a way to help oneself, according to one Vernon man who does just that. Jeremy Ryan has been volunteering as a cook three days a week for about the last six months at the Cornerstone Foundation in Rockville. Currently unemployed himself, he said he wanted to give back to the community, and helping at the shelter helps him feel more productive.

“It's something to get up in the morning and look forward to,” Ryan said. Besides cooking, he does other odd jobs at the center, but has also found that just listening to other people and their problems is another way to be helpful.

“I see them come in, and they have all sorts of different problems,” he said. “By the time they walk out, they've had a good meal and they're happy. It makes them feel good.”

“He's a major help,” said Cornerstone Executive Director Helen Syriac. “He's outgoing, friendly, and likes to talk with the people...and he's an excellent cook.”

Ryan said there are a lot of misconceptions about the people who use Cornerstone's services. “They're all good people,” he said. “They each have a good story. Most of them didn't do anything wrong, they just hit a bad streak in life. It's a pretty happy mood here, actually. The connotations of a soup kitchen for people who have never been here are that it's grumpy, mean people. I walk in here in the morning and people say, 'Hey, Jeremy. How's it going?' It's smiles, it's jokes, it's people helping each other out. If you're in a bad mood when you come in, as soon as you walk through the door, everybody's cheery, and it cheers you up, too.”

Ryan said he's glad to be part of an organization that helps change people's lives. One young man he's had conversations with was down on his luck and living at the shelter, and was also leary of talking to people. That man has since moved to Pennsylvania, has a new job and his own apartment, and totally changed his life.

“If he didn't have a place to stay and to come and get food, who knows what his life would have been,” Ryan said. “I see that stuff all the time. It's constant. A lot of people's lives would be totally different if we weren't here to do what we do.”

Ryan said he's made several friends at the shelter, too. Matthew Neal said he and his wife come to Cornerstone for meals between three and four times per week, and said Ryan's face is one that he and the other people enjoy seeing.

“Jeremy is a nice guy, and he's very meticulous in what he does,” Neal said. “He prepares the meals, but he's very considerate with all of the different people who come in here. He's willing to go out of his way, even when things are busy, to go help somebody.”

Neal said he personally enjoys Ryan's cooking but also his demeanor, which helps set the tone at mealtime. “People who come in here have diverse backgrounds, but he has a great temperament with everyone,” he said.

Another misconception about soup kitchens, Ryan said, is that they typically serve soup. He regularly prepares dishes such as beef with mushroom gravy and chicken parmesan. He also teaches others how to cook, including how to make a highly-useful white sauce.

“I just really enjoyed cooking,” Ryan said, adding that when he started at Cornerstone, he was looking for any duties they needed, but it so happened that there was an opening in the kitchen. He has since gone on to get his SafeServ certification, which could potentially lead to a paid position.

One of the other benefits he gets from volunteering is simply keeping a set schedule. He said the structure is important to recovering alcoholics such as himself, but he has also found networking through his position.

“I've had people come in and offer jobs - just day work and stuff,” he said. “Everyone is out to help everyone else out. It's the type of  community that you don't see a lot anymore.”

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