Soup Ladies sustain emergency workers

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Sammamish resident Mary Jo Kahler has always valued community involvement. As an English teacher, she molded the minds of children for years. And since retiring, she has joined the ranks of a small but growing service group that helps the people who help people during emergencies, like the recent flooding.

For about a year, Kahler has been an active member of The Soup Ladies, a Maple Valley-based non-profit organization that feeds emergency workers throughout King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties.

“I like making a difference in my community and I like to cook,” Kahler said. “It seemed to be a good fit for me.”

She said she first read about the Soup Ladies in a brief article in the Costco Connection magazine last year. “I thought, ‘this really makes sense,’ to take care of people who take care of the community,” Kahler said. “The silent heroes, to me, are the men and women who go through intense training to be on call 24/7 to protect my family … my grandkids.”

The Soup Ladies consists of about 20 women from around the region. They provide fresh, hot, high-calorie meals during events such as house fires, search-and-rescue operations, flood relief and even hurricane cleanup. Like many of the trained responders, they, too, are on call, Kahler said.

Being on the team keeps Kahler, who has quite a flexible schedule these days, up to date with her e-mail and correspondence, she said. She checks her e-mail regularly throughout the day, in case the Soup Ladies get a call.

“For me responding is a priority,” she said.

The Soup Ladies began in a more modest form about 10 years ago, when Maple Valley resident Ginger “Mamma” Passarelli began taking soup to her church. People eventually called her the Soup Lady and over time, her community service grew into a full-fledged operation, serving small groups of firefighters and aid workers who cleaned up after fires and storms in the Maple Valley area. And when Hurricane Katrina hit in September 2005, Passarelli and a small crew of volunteers from her church went to Louisiana to help with clean up.

“I really wanted to cook, because I can cook a lot of food really fast,” said Passarelli, who owns an Italian restaurant.

She went back five times after that, serving up to 3,500 meals a day on the beach in Louisiana. Soon after, she started Mamma Passarelli’s restaurant in Maple Valley.

“If you had told me that I was going to buy a restaurant and drag middle-aged women I don’t know to the beach, I would have said ‘your nuts,’ but that’s what we were doing,” Passarelli said.

In 2008, the Soup Ladies fed emergency workers at the Snoqualmie Pass ice cave collapse and the Green River car rescue operation, among others. While working outside and in unstable conditions, warm, homemade food gives workers an extra boost, Passarelli said. Often, crews stuck out in hard-to-reach places sustain themselves on Meals Ready to Eat – military-style food rations.

“We feed them hot food,” Passarelli said. “That does something to the heart.”

In the fall, Passarelli said they were called to Galveston, Texas and Baton Rouge, La. to help set up a kitchen after hurricane Gustav hit. The group also traveled to Southern California to help with the wildfire efforts.

“We’re getting really good at doing deliveries for small operations,” Passarelli said. “But I’m also able to get into a kitchen for a longer response.”

Up until recently, Passarelli and her husband supported the group’s operations, with the help of a few donations here and there.

“We don’t charge for our meals, we just go out and feed people,” Passarelli said.

But when King County Councilman Reagan Dunn noticed the group’s good deeds, he helped award a $41,000 grant to fund their efforts. The Maple Valley Rotary followed suit and raised $27,000 for the Soup Ladies.

In the end, Passarelli was able to purchase a $60,000 mobile kitchen and received a pick-up truck to tow it.

“Our mobile kitchen is going to give us one more mode of service,” Kahler said.

The Sammamish Rotary recently donated $1,200 to the Soup Ladies to buy 20 large soup pots. Rotary president Lisa Kennedy said giving to groups like the Soup Ladies is why the Rotary does its big fundraisers, like Nightmare at Beaver Lake.

“It’s really fun to help organizations get a start,” Kennedy said. “This is what we do it for. This is a good example of how that works, to be able to give back to the community in this way.”

Passarelli said the Soup Ladies’ mission is simply to feed people who help others in need. And sometimes it’s not just with food. She recalled a humbling moment during the Katrina disaster relief.

“I just remember one fellow – a truck driver – he had come in to the tent, and was sitting with his hands over his eyes. (He had) lost his sunglasses. I said ‘if you come back tomorrow, I’ll have some for you.’ He came back and I handed him some Ray Bans. He started to cry and thanked me,” Passarelli said. “This isn’t from me, it’s from my community. I’m just one little fish in a big pond.”