The Rev. Dale Dunning has been working with homeless people in the resort area for more than a decade. So when she says her soup kitchen is busting at the seams, it takes on special meaning.
By 10 a.m., volunteers at Jusst Sooup Ministry at Rehoboth Midway Presbyterian Church had already served more than 45 meals; many more people would come in for lunch.
There is no permanent shelter for homeless people in the Lewes-Rehoboth Beach area. Organizations, churches and individuals provide limited services, but for the most part the homeless are neglected, Dunning says. She is trying to fill the gap using volunteers and donations, and her own money.
Dunning said homeless people are forced to fend for themselves. They sleep in vehicles, hide in the woods, walk the streets at night or stay on buses until they stop running at 2 a.m., she says. When it's hot, some seek shelter in local libraries for the day.
“People do not want to believe there are a lot of homeless people in this part of Sussex County,” said volunteer Lois Carter.
Dunning has grown her ministry, taking small steps over many years. She added breakfast several years ago and recently has opened the kitchen at the Route 1 church even earlier so that some homeless people can bed down for a few hours on cots she has upstairs for women and downstairs for men. But, she says, that's only two days a week. She now cooks her soup the night before and arrives at the soup kitchen around 2 a.m.
Dunning says the demand for services is growing faster than her ministry can keep pace with, and she's limited in what she can do without a permanent building. “There has to be someone out there who can work with us and help me help others,” she said.
Dunning is always dreaming of ways to better the lives of those she serves. She has drawn up plans for a 24-hour homeless shelter; now she needs someone to join with her. “We need a building where people can stay and start to heal,” she said. “We work so hard for them, and then they have to leave for the five days the soup kitchen is not open.”
Dunning: Need to make major changes
The soup kitchen on Route 1 is open Mondays and Thursdays. “I can work with people and tell them we love them, but we have to leave at 2 p.m. Then it has to start all over again,” she said. “We are able to make a little change in people's lives, but we want that change to be for a lifetime.”
Even basic needs like taking a shower can't be achieved, Dunning said.
Volunteer Michelle Clarke said her eyes have been opened since she started helping. “We do the best we can, but we know it's not enough. People come here who are in desperate situations,” she said. “These people have no place to go, and the cycle they are on keeps going and going. They need a place to be and a place to belong.
“They leave here, and it's easy to go back to the old habits they know. There is so much pain, sadness and need here,” she said.
Dunning said many of those she serves have part-time jobs, but they still can't afford a place to live. Dunning has taken on the extra duty of washing clothes so those who have jobs have clean clothes when they go to work.
Stories that tug at the heart
Dunning said what occurs at the soup kitchen is sometimes trying. She tells the story of a man who was stuffing himself with food on a recent Thursday. “He said he needed to eat as much as he could because he wouldn't eat again until Monday,” she said.
She also talks about a 66-year-old man she found early one morning when she arrived at the soup kitchen. “He was laying on the concrete porch with no shoes and no shirt. It breaks your heart,” Dunning said.
Then there is the mother and son who came from the nearby woods at 2:45 a.m., who ended up sleeping on a sheet on the floor of the soup kitchen because all cots were taken.
There are success stories, Dunning said. She talks about a man who came to the kitchen for months and smelled of alcohol every time he walked in the door. She said he's been sober for more than a year and now owns his own home.
“Most people have a preconceived notion of who the homeless are,” Clarke said. “Once you sit and talk with them you find out they are not what you think.”
Dunnings can't serve public at ranch
Dunning has the perfect site for a permanent soup kitchen outside her home's front door on Coolspring Road near Lewes. The Dunning family received national attention during a segment of the hit TV show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” The show was filmed in August 2011 and aired as a Thanksgiving special.
Hundreds of volunteers and dozens of contractors mobilized over a week to construct the Jusst Sooup Ranch for the Dunnings building a large soup kitchen as the answer to her dream to have a permanent site for her ministry.
That dream still has not materialized. Because of concerns expressed by area residents, the Sussex County Board of Adjustment unanimously denied a special-use permit to operate a soup kitchen on the property. A public soup kitchen is not permitted in the 6-acre property's agricultural-residential zoning.
Dunning and her husband, Ken, who have been operating the ministry for the past 15 years, have approval to run a home occupation at the Jusst Sooup Ranch, but they not permitted to serve the public. Dunning said she had hoped to open the new commercial kitchen and dining facility to those in need to serve lunch Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays, as well as special days and holidays, serving between 50 and 70 people at a time
Because of home occupation regulations, volunteers are no longer permitted to assist Dunning at the site, even though thousands of volunteers donated their time and talents to build Jusst Sooup Ranch. Only family members who reside at the home are permitted to help with the home occupation, according to county code.
The Dunnings are pressing forward to eventually use the building as a church, a permitted use under AR-1 zoning.
To reach Dunning, phone 644-8113 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Volunteer starts drive to purchase a used RV
To complicate matters, the Dunnings' RV – affectionately called Beulah – is inoperable. Dunning used the RV for housing as well as transportation for her ministry.
Volunteer Peggy Keyser is spearheading a drive to raise $20,000 to purchase a used RV. For more information, contact Keyser at email@example.com.