After a day of hard work in the kitchen, with your head down over a hot stock pot, your neck and arms stiff from chopping one too many onions, most people would be thankful for a good shoulder rub. Not so for Yvonne Shields, the Sous Chef at Broadway Community’s “Four Star Soup Kitchen.” For Yvonne, the strain of the day is best alleviated by giving a massage to another weary worker…or two, or three, or more.
Yvonne Shields has always been a giver. For 17 years, she gave of herself with an organization called Childcare, Inc. There, she was a coordinator of family daycare networks. Her work supported low-income parents and children across the five boroughs, setting up networked communities of care for children, and training those networks in child development and nutrition. She did a great job. Too great, it turns out.
“The networks we set up became self-sufficient,” she said. “Once they were up and running, the needs and the structures changed.”
In 1999, the organization reorganized itself. Yvonne had worked herself out of a job.
“Downsizing happened, and it happened to me.”
By the winter of that year, she had yet to find work. Keeping up with the bills, particularly the rent, had become impossible.
“On January 13, 2000, a date I’ll never forget, I was evicted from my apartment after 21 years,” she said. “It was one of the coldest days that whole winter.”
During her time at Childcare, Inc., Yvonne had counseled many parents on facing various challenges of the NYC Human Resources Administration (HRA). Now, suddenly, she was forced to enter that system herself. She and her daughter went into a shelter. She had to wrestle with a mountain of challenges: finding storage for her things, getting food and health care, going back and forth across town to seek services, being forced to move from one shelter to another, all the while trying to get a job to scrape by on.
“All the agencies that were actually helping were being defunded,” she recalls. “It wasn’t until I experienced it that I understood the anger, the frustration, that people had with these supposedly supportive systems. I saw a sign one day that said, ‘Are you tired of being disrespected? Are you tired of not being listened to?’ and I thought, ‘Yes!’”
She called the number on the sign and soon became engaged with an organization called Community Voices Heard. CVH gave her a community, and developed her skills in talking to people in the system – and in speaking out to people in power. A part-time job gave her some much-needed cash. Other things began to fall into place, not least of which was a housing opportunity in the Bronx.
By 2005, life had become more livable for Yvonne, but she was still eager to expand her possibilities, and to give back to her community. A friend told her about a food service training program at a soup kitchen in Manhattan.
Yvonne found her way to Broadway Community and into the Food And Nutrition Training Awareness Project (FANTAP) led by Chef Michael Ennes.
“FANTAP gave me the opportunity to renew my Food Handler’s Certificate, which I had once had, but lost,” she said.
Yvonne quickly became a fixture in the kitchen. She completed the FANTAP program, and was soon a part of the staff. She volunteered, too, spending her Sunday nights in the Community Room with the shelter guests, which was a program for women in those days. (The shelter is now a program for homeless men.)
“I always volunteered on Sunday,” she said, “so that I would be here in time to make Monday’s breakfast.”
Ten years in, she is still grateful to be a part of the Broadway Community. She even encouraged her daughter, Ama, to go through the FANTAP program. Ama did so, and graduated just last year. Now she has her Food Handler certification, too.
“We’ve been thinking about setting up a food stand somewhere,” Yvonne said. “But all that’s on hold right now, since Ama is taking care of my eight month old grandbaby.”
In the meantime, even though Yvonne has retired, she still comes back week after week to keep things humming in the Soup Kitchen. And, she keeps giving those much needed, much celebrated shoulder rubs to her kitchen coworkers.
When asked what keeps her coming back, she said that she loves the Broadway Community atmosphere.
“I learned here that, number 1: my skills are useful, and number 2: I’m helping people even as I’m being helped.”