Feeding the Homeless on the Holidays

Dec 23, 2014

For those who are apprehensive about preparing holiday meals for family guests, consider Sister Ludmilla Benda, a nearly ninety-year old woman who does it weekly for a hundred-or-more hungry strangers. 

At Davenport’s Vineyard of Hope, she’ll be serving meals this winter on days when most others are taking a day off.

In downtown Davenport’s Black Hawk hotel lobby, a quintet serenades guests who file along a buffet laden with fruits and silver ovens filled with gourmet foods. But outside the lobby, just about a block away in a modest house adjacent to the hotel's parking lot, Sister Ludmilla Benda works along in a small kitchen opening large steel cans, scooping refried beans into large roaster pans and moving them into a cookstove oven.

She cooks in a tiny kitchen, so she only has to turn around from the stove to the sink to rinse cans for recycling.               

People ask me for the recipe for something I make, I say, I don't know, I don't have it. I just put things together. Its easier that way.

  Sister Ludmilla provides a hot meal on Sundays and holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas when other meal charities are closed. And on holidays, she doesn’t just make sandwiches.  Sister Ludmilla prepares a main course with all the trimmings. It’s an astonishing feat for a woman who is nearly 90-years old. She says she’s long been retired from an executive career in health care, and now cooks hundreds of meals, without recipes.

“People ask me for the recipe for something I make, I say, I don’t know, I don’t have it. I just put things together. It’s easier that way.”

Although she purchases the food and prepares it, volunteers help serve hungry people who line up half-way down the block outside. One man who was in line commented that he probably wouldn’t eat without Sister Ludmilla’s meal.  

“It’s just a way of life. That’s all there is to it. I come here every Sunday….there’s nothing really open.”

When the doors open and the food is served, Sister Ludmilla turns on music from a boom box on a window ledge. Meanwhile, both men and women familiar with the routine rush in to find places at small tables in the house’s small living room. They play card games before food is served. Others go to a sign-up list for laundry privileges and a private shower in the basement. Sister Ludmilla says that they start letting people down to shower as soon as they open the doors and try to get as many people through as they can.

“Someone is down there now. He’ll take his clothes off that he has on, stick’em in the wash machine. Sometimes they don’t have any other clothes except those they have on. I have a robe down there. They can put on a robe and stay down in the basement until the laundry is done. They really appreciate that. So we start as soon as they come in, and we go until about one-thirty or so.”

George Mister is one of a handful of volunteers that helps keep things running smoothly. He has been here on Sundays for about 10 years. “Sister Ludmilla is a wonderful person. She is another Mother Teresa.”

Sister Ludmilla shops for basic necessities during the week and then gives the items away when she serves meals.
Credit Dean Borg / Iowa Public Radio

 Before the food is served, Sister Ludmilla says grace and then allows folks to load their plates from a buffet line of casserole dishes and a couple of dutch ovens on the small kitchen table.  A dozen or so find places at a couple of tables in the small living room, but most go to picnic tables on the asphalt parking lot outside the house. 

Looking across the lot, they can see people loading their luggage into vehicles parked at the Black Hawk hotel. But in the Vineyard of Hope’s parking lot Sister Ludmilla lifts the back lid on her vehicle.  It’s loaded with socks, shoes and other clothing items from bargain-hunting during the past week. She gives it away to her guests.

And on Christmas Day, she’ll be serving meals—and giving basic necessities-- to those without.