It's Saturday afternoon in Tremont and lunch is winding down at St. Augustine Hunger Center. Volunteers wipe down the tables and pack up the leftovers. A few regulars linger at a table and talk about family and faith. When asked how the food was today, they nod their approval. "The salad was good," one offers. "And the soup."
Today's soup was a corn chowder with tomatoes, potatoes and jalapenos, with some cilantro and cumin tossed in for good measure. It wasn't the bland fare you might expect from a mass-produced meal for the homeless and food-insecure in a major city. It's comfort food with flavor.
The architect of this meal is bustling through the dining area and kitchen, making sure to introduce me to all the volunteers by name and tell me what role they played in preparing the meal. She teases me about showing up too late to volunteer. "You just didn't want to wear a hairnet, did you?"
Mary Ellen Rhein is not a Cleveland celebrity chef – or even an up-and-coming one – but she's cooked up and served hundreds of meals. She and the rest of the Single Volunteers of Ohio (SVO), of which she is the president, cook at the Hunger Center the second and last Saturday of every month.
"A lot of the time, donations are leftovers or close to its expiration date," says Rhein. SVO's goal is to provide them with "at least one meal a month made especially for them."
St. Augustine Hunger Center is one of many nonprofits that SVO partners with (domestic violence centers, food banks and the Ronald McDonald House are just a few of the others in the rotation), but it's Rhein's favorite project.
"I like to cook," she says. "I like to be creative." And she has to be creative given the random nature of what supplies will land in the Hunger Center's food pantry (she jokingly compares the unpredictability of the task to the Food Network's Chopped) and SVO's limited budget; she has to stretch her biweekly meals to feed up to 150 people.
Food has always been a big part of her family. In Pittsburgh, where she grew up, her mother ran a business baking cookies for weddings. But cooking, on a volunteer basis or otherwise, was not an obvious path for Rhein. "If you talk to people I went to high school with they'd tell you I could burn Jell-O," she says.
When she moved from Pittsburgh to Northeast Ohio for a job teaching special education, someone gave Rhein a Betty Crocker cookbook. It became a bible for Rhein, part of what she calls her "own little study" on cooking with cookbooks and TV shows.
It was divorce that led Rhein to volunteering. "The kids go off with the ex, and it's hard," she admits. A friend recommended she volunteer to fill the time. Rhein found SVO, and St. Augustine was the first activity she came to.
In the 15 years since, she's become something like the organization's resident chef, though she laughs when I suggest that title. "I like to boss people around," she says. "I think it's the teacher thing that kicks in."
Volunteering is not without its benefits. "I've done things and met people I never would've met," says Rhein. Among those people are Cleveland Browns and Indians players, and families from around the world through the Ronald McDonald House.
Growing up, says Rhein, her parents were always helping people, whether it was neighbors, family or friends. When I suggest that so much of her work in life – special education, volunteering – has been about the same, she blushes. "I guess that's what I like to do."