Every Monday and Tuesday, Georgia College rhetoric students can be found at Milledgeville’s only soup kitchen—peeling potatoes, chopping onions and shredding meats. They set tables, serve meals to the less fortunate, wash dishes and haul out garbage.
Then they use what they’ve observed and learned to write a great speech—putting their rhetoric to work, educating others about food insecurities of the poor.
They speak in churches, at county organizations and around campus—encouraging people to donate time, money and canned goods to Café Central in Milledgeville.
“A lot of time, Georgia College students only stay in their four-block district, and they don’t know Milledgeville at all,” said senior Elizabeth Sockwell of John’s Creek, who majors in liberal studies with minors in rhetoric, sociology and graphic design.
“It’s always a humbling moment when you realize you’re not the center of everything,” Sockwell said. “Definitely, this experience will carry on with me. I want to be a volunteer my entire life, because if I ever end up in a situation where I need help, I’d want people to do the same for me.”
Communication Professor Dr. Scott Dillard started sending students to Café Central seven years ago. On Mondays, all 16 students prep food and put out tables and chairs for Tuesday’s lunch. Some return on Tuesdays to serve meals and clean up. It’s a class requirement to put in 15 hours on Tuesdays throughout the semester.
Mingling with volunteers and the poor makes a huge impact.
“Most of our students haven’t experienced hunger or food insecurity or poverty. So, to be confronted with that is a powerful thing,” Dillard said.
“They also learn a lot about a community they would otherwise not have any contact with,” he said. “That’s one of the things I think is most powerful about the project. It allows our students to understand that they are coming into someone else’s home for four years.”
Café Central celebrates 10 years in October. It grew from serving 10 people meals cooked in crockpots to filling 500 plates and feeding about 280 per week.
It costs $47,000 a year to provide one meal a week. Students help prepare nourishing meals like chicken and dumplings with peas and carrots, spaghetti, Brunswick stew and cornbread, meatball subs and chips, chicken Parmesean or fried chicken with mac-n-cheese.
This brings students face-to-face with poverty. They research homelessness and hunger and collect local unemployment numbers. Statistics for the downtrodden in Baldwin County run higher than the state average. Yet, there are no full-time soup kitchens in Milledgeville.
As students realize their efforts aren’t enough to solve underlying problems, they begin to seek long-term solutions.
“I do like teaching this course,” Dillard said, “because it’s so different. It gets us out of the classroom, and it gets my students thinking in a different way, and it changes them. You don’t get to see that happen all the time.”
“Most of them are moved at some point by the experience,” he said, “and they take something valuable away with them. This is stuff you can’t get from a book. It’s different when it’s right there in front of you.”
Patrons at Café Central might be homeless or simply having a hard time making ends meet. Many are elderly. They are greeted by the smiles of volunteers and treated to a restaurant-like, sit-down meal with real dishes and silverware. It’s an afternoon when the poor are celebrated and well treated.
Volunteers are getting on in years too—many in their 70s and 80s. Chef Jim Humphrey said he’s glad to have young students doing even the smallest of things, like lugging heavy chairs to tables. They come excited to learn from him, and he teaches them dying culinary skills, like how to make chicken stock, jams and pickles.
Students don’t treat Café Central like an assignment that has to be completed, Humphrey said. They come enthusiastic.
“They’re lifesavers,” said Jeanene Vinson, a volunteer. “The Georgia College students are amazing, because they’ll do anything they’re asked to do.”
Her fellow volunteer, Peggy Sowell, laughed and said, “Even though they probably don’t know which end the onion grows at.”
Dillard laughs too. He likes to joke the class is about learning to properly cut an onion. But it’s more than that. Students foster relationships with the poor and listen to the stories of volunteers. They learn the importance of helping others.
Junior Conor Magee of Marietta is a business major minoring in rhetoric. He hung out at the stove recently, talking to the chef long after his classmates left. They talked about leaving skin on the chicken, when making broth.
Before leaving, Magee promised he’d continue volunteering after class is over in May.
“I wanted to take this class to give back and help the community,” Magee said. “Just seeing the smiles on people’s faces is awesome. It’s a really positive environment. I love volunteering. It does something for my heart.”
Later in the semester, students will use what they’ve learned to give speeches and encourage others to donate. Dillard’s classes have raised hundreds of dollars for the kitchen each spring.
Students also work in groups on fundraisers. Some will table on campus. Others will set up competitions between fraternities and sororities to see which can raise the most money or canned goods for Café Central.
Dillard mostly wants his students to take these lessons into life.
“I hope they will take their rhetoric skills and help people,” Dillard said. “I’m not just training them to get a job. I’m training them to think about the world in a larger sense and use their skills wherever they’re needed.”