Soup's on! Portland community project delivers fresh soup to the elderly and others every week

When Michelle VanSlambrouck started her end-of-life doula courses, she did not imagine that her final class assignment would blossom into a thriving collaborative in Portland, a rural community in Ionia County about 30 miles outside of Lansing.

On the last day of class, VanSlambrouck’s instructor asked how each student was going to benefit the elderly or end-of-life community with the skills they had learned. “I don’t want to help one family, I want to help a lot of people and families,” Van Slambrouck recalls thinking to herself.

That is how VanSlambrouck’s head and heart works … BIG.

Michelle VanSlambrouckThe Portland resident came up with The Soup Project, a community-supported volunteer effort to provide a free meal to the elderly and those in need once a week in the Portland School District community. She sought volunteers to help in her effort to lighten the load of elderly residents and those facing temporary hardships. 

The pandemic, she says, only underscored the need to help members of the community, make connections and let them know they were appreciated. That connection is needed even in small communities, such as Portland, home to nearly 4,000 people.

What is happening: Each week The Soup Project volunteers make and deliver nutritious, freshly made soup and snacks to the elderly living on a fixed budget, those who are homebound or who have limited ability to leave their home or deadline with a life-limiting illness in the Portland School District community.

Volunteers make soup every Tuesday at the Portland United Methodist Church.The soups are prepared by a team of volunteers every Tuesday at the Portland Methodist Church. The soups include chicken noodle, beef barley mushroom, cream of broccoli, 15 bean, beef minestrone, turkey noodle, twice-baked potato, split pea with ham, chicken and rice, cabbage roll. Ingredients are both donated and purchased with donated funds. The volunteers also make muffins fresh every week. Cookies are purchased, at a discount, from Tom’s Bakery in Portland. 

How the program started: The program started delivering meals to the first 50 homes on November 1, 2022; however, delivering those first meals required a year of planning before implementation. 

VanSlambrouck, a former small business owner who operated a coffee shop and bakery in Portland for nine years, finished her classes in December 2021. The inspiration for The Soup Project came while she was helping take care of an elderly couple in their 90s. Well aware of their burdens in even preparing meals, she began thinking about the question her instructor had asked; “What are we going to do with our new knowledge to benefit the community'? I knew I wanted to help make a big impact."

She first sought out people familiar with taking on projects of this size by consulting with other board members on Backpack for Bellies, a nonprofit she co-founded. In addition, there was lots of outreach to the public to see if the idea was viable.

What is Backpacks for Bellies: Backpacks for Bellies is a non-profit organization that provides free meals to Portland School District students in need over weekends. She learned from Backpack for Bellies that although people may need and want help, they don’t know how to ask for it. After determining delivering meals weekly was viable, a foundation was legally formed and organized. A six-member board was created and meetings were held. The first effort to organize volunteers drew 75 people.

What has been the impact: In addition to delivering two meals each week to the elderly, The Soup Project has included residents of any age who are dealing with life limiting illness and people in the community simply asking for help. For The Soup Project, “there is no litmus test for our kindness. Sometimes people need a little help, and they should not have to jump through hoops to obtain a little help. Whether it be for a couple weeks or a few months, we want Portland area residents to know we care.”

Soup containers ready to be filled. Since its beginnings in, The Soup Project has delivered 10,880 meals. Currently, The Soup Project prepares and delivers 1,000 meals a

Where does funding come from: According to the organization's co-treasurer, Suzanne Maystead, 35 percent of the group’s funds came from grants and 65 percent from local individual donations. Donations can be made online and donors can also order needed products for the organization on its Amazon Wish List. “We started with about 40 clients and now are up to 108. We hope to raise $15,000 next fiscal year,” Maystead says.

There is no overhead or salary costs associated with The Soup Community. Everything is volunteer or donated. “We have a very dedicated group of drivers that have become friends with our clients. To me, that is almost as important as the food itself. Too often the youth get most of the attention, it’s wonderful to see the older members of society receive some affection,” she says.

To donate, go to The Soup Project

Jason M. Karel is a freelance writer who lives in rural southwestern Michigan. He contributes regularly to Rural Innovation Exchange and UPword. 
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