A Black Diamond woman who’s made it her mission to serve hot meals to local officers, firefighters and other emergency responders when they are out on prolonged calls has taken her mission to New York, where they’ll serve people affected by Hurricane Sandy.
When Ginger Passarelli gets a call in the middle of the night to rush out to Mount Rainier, or North Bend,
or Bellevue, she never knows what awaits her, or how long she’ll be. But she does know that it’s usually not good news.
She also knows that she will find exhausted and hungry first responders and, on the periphery, ordinary citizens who may be having the worst day of their lives.
Wherever she ends up, Passarelli knows bellies — and hopefully hearts — will be filled.
For more than seven years, the 57-year-old Black Diamond grandmother has been feeding police officers, firefighters, medics and search-and-rescue workers who are called out to crime scenes, natural disasters and other emergencies. Whenever there’s a search or siege, Passarelli and her fellow volunteers head out, often with their mobile kitchen, to pass out steaming bowls of soup, hot coffee, cocoa or sandwiches, along with a side order of understanding.
Passarelli’s volunteers are known as the Soup Ladies. Their motto: “Warming the world one bowl at a time.” She was in Parkland after four Lakewood police officers were fatally shot in a coffee shop in November 2009.
She was in Bellevue a year ago during the first week of the intensive search for missing toddler Sky Metalwala. She was in Graham in February after Josh Powell killed his two sons and himself in a fiery inferno.
She was in North Bend in April when self-styled survivalist Peter Keller holed up for two days in a hand-built, fortified bunker after killing his wife and daughter.
“Mama” Passarelli, as she is known, has seen the faces of the officers and rescue workers who come in tired, worried, or heartbroken after hours in the field. Her mission is to keep them fueled with food.
“They literally cry, they’re so thankful for a hot meal. It’s the most rewarding thing in the world,” she said.
King County sheriff’s Deputy Richard Barton, who works in search and rescue, says the value of what Passarelli and her fellow volunteers contribute cannot be overestimated.
“When you’ve been out for hours, sometimes overnight, and you come in to a hot, comforting, home-cooked meal, it’s such a morale booster,” Barton said. “She’s awesome.”
This week, Passarelli and three of the growing ranks of Soup Ladies — Sheila Lein, Jannelle Noller and Diana Holt — have taken their show on the road. They’ll be serving Thanksgiving dinner and other meals to rescue workers and residents in some areas of New York state hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy, including Rockaway Beach.
For Passarelli, it’s particularly noteworthy to feed the victims of the destructive storm since it was a hurricane that initially called her to this work.
Loved to cook
Passarelli has always loved to cook, even before she opened Mama Passarelli’s Dinner House in Black Diamond. She also ran the soup kitchen at her church and habitually made Sunday dinners large enough to feed unexpected guests.
In 2005, her pastor asked her to accompany him and others from the church to a hard-hit region of coastal Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. “What I saw there changed my life,” she said.
Working out of a tent and cooking over anything that produced heat, she and other volunteers fed thousands of meals to rescue workers, emergency responders and residents who had lost everything. She was amazed to see how a hearty meal lifted spirits even in the midst of complete devastation.
When Passarelli returned to Black Diamond what she’d seen stayed with her, she said.
She called King County Fire District 44 and asked if it was true that firefighters were often stuck out on calls without food, recalls Fire District spokesman Tim Perciful.
“If we needed food, it was always a last-minute thing with somebody running to whatever fast-food place was open and bringing something back,” he said. “We ate a lot of cold French fries.”
Passarelli offered to bring hot food to firefighters whenever they were on an extended call. The Fire District took her up on her offer.
She began taking hot soup to firefighters in the field. She’d supplement that with cold sandwiches when they were covered with sweat after battling a blaze. It wasn’t long before other fire districts came calling, she said.
Barton, the King County search-and-rescue deputy, heard about Passarelli’s work and enlisted the Soup Lady. After she’d gone out on a few missions with his crew and word spread, demand for her services grew.
She and her crew of volunteers have gone through a state-certified training program to learn how to assist emergency-response agencies with evacuation, food preparation and other skills. The nonprofit Soup Ladies charge nothing for their services and rely solely on donations.
In one week earlier this month the Soup Ladies were out three times in three days after an elderly man went missing on the Eastside; snowboarders were lost on Mount Rainier; and a 16-year-old-girl disappeared in Tacoma, Passarelli said.
Passarelli has refined her techniques over the years, learning how to pack the most nutritious and usable calories into each serving of approximately 14 ounces of soup.
She has a freezer full of cooked meat, such as leftover steak, prime rib and pot roast from the restaurant. When she gets a call she dumps it into a kettle of soup stock, adds vegetables and pasta, rice or other grains. She often thickens the broth with mashed potatoes.
“They need the carbs to do the work they do,” Passarelli says.
The Soup Ladies has grown over the years to more than three dozen women and men who join Passarelli on her missions.
When Mary Ann Anarreborg, of Maple Valley, heard about Passarelli’s work, she joined as a way to honor her nephew, a firefighter who died in 2001.
“It was a way to say ‘thank you’ to him for all the people he saved,” she said.
Tracie Lozano, also of Maple Valley, said, “I can’t tell you how good it feels to see their smiles when they see our truck.”
Recently, King County donated a used four-wheel-drive truck to the Soup Ladies so they can respond to any scene regardless of weather or terrain. The donation reflects the appreciation emergency workers have for the volunteers.
“We might not be able to stop disasters or tragedies,” Passarelli said. “But we can feed people, and that is so basic and so necessary and so important, I do feel like we are making a difference, one meal at a time.”