All photos/art by Matt Kalinowski
Brenden Gobell is a foodie. He likes real blueberry pancakes, bacon-wrapped scallops, and sushi.
He also knows hunger. As a wrestler for Avon High School, he would cut weight before a match, sometimes reducing calories drastically for several days. “You move beyond hunger,” he says. “And then you’re just dying of thirst.”
But on the nights when he prepares baked ziti for 120 people at Hartford’s South Park Inn homeless shelter — as he and his mom and sister have done pretty much every other month since Brenden was 12 years old — there’s enough pasta to feed an army. And baguettes. And green salad. And always cookies, because a fair number of residents have a sweet tooth, a byproduct of opiate addiction.
“We have only a few families like the Gobells,” says Brian Baker, the shelter’s assistant director. Most nights, church or school groups cook. “The Gobells pay for the food themselves or through their own fundraising, and prepare it, too.”
After six years of volunteering, Brenden knows the shopping list by heart: 16 boxes of ziti, five four-pound jars of tomato sauce, two large tubs of ricotta, five pounds of shredded mozzarella. “The women and children eat first,” explains Brenden. “Then the men. They come back for seconds and thirds.”
Dinner marks the high point of the day. Curfew is six o’clock. After dark, counseling and clinics address the complex issues that push people onto the street: mental illness, substance abuse, and unemployment, among them. Twenty minutes northwest of here, Hartford’s gritty neighborhoods blur into sweeping views of the capital city embraced by million-dollar homes on Avon Mountain. The stark contrast in economics between his hometown and the Inn “gets me out of the bubble,” says Brenden.
What began as help for his mom became an ongoing commitment for Brenden: first raising money for the dinners, then conducting drives for linens and toiletries. For his senior-year project, he organized a miniature golf tournament, netting a $1,120 donation. “I was floored,” says Baker. In a flat-funded environment, every dollar — and every plate of pasta prepared and served with respect — is one more step in the right direction.
Learn more: 860-724-0071; southparkinn.org