What do you do when you witness human suffering? How do you respond? Do you determine that someone else should do something? Or do you take action?
On December 17, 2016, Our Daily Bread’s founder, Ruth “Cookie” Vogelpohl, passed away at the age of 75.
Cookie’s life-work initiated after a significant incident in 1980. It happened while she was working for the Franciscan Friars on Liberty Street in Over-the-Rhine. She wrote in her journal:
Quite often some of the office people would go to a restaurant right down the street for lunch. One of those days, I noticed an older bearded man with a torn black rain coat begin to rummage in a trash can near another restaurant across the street. After a short time, he opened a bag, took out a partially eaten sandwich, and then continued to search in that same can for something equally valuable.
Cookie could not get the image of the man out of her mind. Saddened and upset, that moment sparked something deep inside Cookie’s heart. Speaking of the incident with her aunt, Sr. Clara, she remarked, “Someone needs to do something!” Her aunt simply responded
You are someone, Cookie.
So Cookie did what she did best: she started having conversations with friends, family, co-workers and anyone else she sensed also had the spark of kindness within them. Cookie’s friend Bill Holohan, donated the first $50 to the effort, saying “Go for it! Use it to buy what you need to start.” By mid-April 1981 Cookie was granted permission to start a meal program two nights a week at St. Francis’ school kitchen.
On May 10th, 1981 a donated turkey became a meal of turkey noodle soup for nine people. On May 12th Cookie served twenty-five with the same soup. By July 1981 two hundred people a night were eating Cookie’s meals.
Before long, Cookie realized a simple meal was not enough.
The plight of the elderly and the mentally ill continued to be a deep concern for me…hearing and watching the difficulties…was the real driving force.
She worried that the guests had no safe space to spend their days, and since the soup kitchen was located in the school cafeteria, earlier admittance was not possible. Cookie took a leap of faith and decided to strike out on her own.
After researching soup kitchens in Boston and New York, Cookie and her friends began formulating ideas.
We were like kids on Christmas morning making these plans that we hoped would happen.
In October 1984, Cookie found a space at 1721 Logan Street (the front of the building is 1632 Central Parkway.) The space was rented for $250 per month as long as it was cleaned and remodeled on our end, we could have six months free rent. (We had less than $1000.00 at the time.)
By November 1984 friends and relatives were coming to Cookie’s aid and every craft-person needed was part of the team. With $700, some mops and brooms, and the help of many, Cookie rehabbed the basement at 1721 Logan Street. The basement did not have heat or air-conditioning, but they made it into a welcoming place.
Our Daily Bread’s doors opened on January 26, 1985 and served 10 people that day. By the end of 1985, we were serving over 100 people a day. All who came were guests and were treated with respect and dignity.
In October 1988 Hamilton County purchased the building and did extensive remodeling and we finally had heat and air conditioning. Then in September 1990 the county requested that we vacate the building as they had need of the space for storage. The people of Cincinnati deluged county officials with letters of support for the mission of Our Daily Bread to the poor of our city and the county agreed to allow us to stay.
The Logan street location continued to operate until Fall of 1999 when Hamilton County offered to sell the building to The City of Cincinnati, Economic Development of Findlay Market and Over the Rhine. It had been determined that our space was the best location for a freight elevator, and the city needed our space. We had no choice but to find a different location.
For eight months a search was on for a suitable building, until a building that had been abandoned was identified at the corner of Race & Elder. After some months of negotiations, the building was purchased for $98,000.00
In Cookie’s words:
At about 10:00 a.m. on September 11, 2000 we were advised that the building at 1730 Race Street was ours! It was almost 9 months to that day when we were advised that we would have to find a new location to make way for a new project for the city. They needed the space that we have occupied since 1985 for their plan.
The rehab took place with the help of Project Restore and their many helpers and we opened our “new” doors again on August 28, 2001. Before moving, we were mostly concerned about how the move would affect our guests and the needed services we provide to so many, if there was to be any lapse of service. In the end we only had to stop service for 3 weeks!
Today, Cookie’s legacy endures as Cincinnati’s largest soup kitchen continues to provide hot, home-cooked meals Monday through Friday. What Cookie built was a careful response to an unaddressed community problem, utilizing the time and talent of hundreds of people. Our Daily Bread was built, in Cookie’s words, by “one miracle after another. One after another, everything we would need started to materialize – miracles happened so often we started to expect them!”
So, we carry on, asking “what would Cookie do?” at every bump and every opportunity. And we let her legacy guide our hearts and the work that we continue to do today.