Article written by Urban Alliance staff. Photos by Urban Alliance staff unless otherwise noted.

Once a month, the delicious smells of a home-cooked meal and dozens of smiling faces fill the community dining room on May Street in Hartford, at Love Kitchen, an outreach ministry of Youth Challenge of Connecticut.

Love Kitchen is a hunger-relief ministry that has been serving nearly 50 people at each of their free monthly community meals since 2011, and was founded by Reverend Eulogio and Maria Velez as a response to Youth Challenge of Connecticut‘s mission of ‘helping the hurting.’ Youth Challenge is a non-profit organization based in Hartford and a participant in the Urban Alliance network. The organization operates a residential program and conducts outreach to help people who are struggling with life-controlling problems, such as drug and alcohol dependency, to lead productive and meaningful lives.

Dr. Gladys Santiago and Dr. Ramon Davila recently stepped into the role of Love Kitchen’s Operations Managers after volunteering with the ministry for over a year. In speaking with them, it is immediately apparent that they are filled with a passion to serve others, and that Love Kitchen is more than a just monthly task; it is a source of pure joy.

“To me, this type of program is embedded in my heart,” explained Santiago, “I believe in this just as Jesus fed the hungry and helped the needy.” As a child, Santiago grew up in a low-income neighborhood in Puerto Rico. She tells her life story with pride, and believes that her personal background is an asset and not something of which she should be ashamed.

“I remember the occasions when my family didn’t have rice, but thanks to the fact that we had family who lived nearby in our community, we could ask them. That’s community. Because we would share with each other, we would have food on the table, and that was a blessing.  We had a family network that could help us when we needed it, but that’s not the reality today, especially in the United States. Since I grew up in a low-income neighborhood, these kinds of programs are very special. I don’t mind if this is a lot of work. I do it because I believe in living this way. I don’t mind giving my life and my job to God, to fulfill the Great Commandment [to love your neighbor as yourself].”

“I have a business degree, but I love to cook,” said Santiago’s husband and fellow Operations Manager, Dr. Ramon Davila. “I love to serve and I love people. In many people I see Jesus. When I serve people, I am very happy.”

Part of the duo’s vision is not only to provide a hot meal for anyone who is in need, but also to serve a nutritious meal. 

“For us, we love to serve fresh, quality food, ” explained Davila, who has enjoyed cooking since he was ten years old. “I like to get creative with making healthy food. We always serve fresh salad with every meal, and we take into consideration options for people who are vegetarian or who do not eat pork.”

Head chef Juan Hernandez is the key player in preparing meals for Love Kitchen. Hernandez, who came to Youth Challenge when he was taking classes for chaplaincy, saw the need and began volunteering with Love Kitchen. “I like to be where there is need serving others,” he said.

Not only does Hernandez prepare meals from scratch for Love Kitchen but he also prepares meals three times a day, twice a week, for Youth Challenge’s residents, all on a volunteer basis. The residents, who receive counseling, classes and group activities in order to help in their pursuit of a new life, are also given the opportunity to serve with Love Kitchen.

Gabby Torres, who has faced challenges with drug abuse and incarceration in the past, has found hope and has committed his life to Christ since becoming involved with the Youth Challenge program.

“If it hadn’t been for Youth Challenge, I don’t know where I would have been right now,” he said. “You get a lot of stability here. Part of the [Youth Challenge] program is that they give us opportunities to help out and reach out to the community. That’s what we’re all about, helping the community in the same way they helped us. That’s one of the things I strive in. When I came here and saw all of these things that the people were doing, I thought this was great! I come from a similar background as [Gladys Santiago] and sometimes my father had to do a lot of things just to put food on the table. It just feels good to see people eating a hot meal. Just the little things we do, it does touch people. It does help. I like to help people, and I’ve always been like that. I’ve had my ups and downs, but who hasn’t?”

Santiago and Davila have big plans for Love Kitchen, and a vision to expand the impact of the program. One of the steps to expanding started just a few weeks ago, with Love Kitchen on the Road, a mobile soup kitchen that will deliver food around Hartford in the early morning hours on Saturdays.

“We select a place where we know there is a high need and that week, we take the van there,” said Santiago. “We hope to partner with churches in our community who are in areas of Hartford that have a need for Love Kitchen on the Road, where we can park and serve the food out of their lots. In the future we would love to provide other services, too, like free haircuts and a food pantry.”

Another new aspect of Love Kitchen is a community Thanksgiving meal that will take place on November 21. Along with a hot meal, those who request a turkey in advance by contacting Love Kitchen will receive one, free of charge, to take home. Starting in January, Love Kitchen will provide two monthly community meals, in an effort to serve over 100 people with each meal.

“At the end of the month there is a crisis,” explained Santiago, “Prices are going up for groceries but food stamp allowances aren’t.”

“My dream is to have meals served every day,” said Davila, “I know this is very difficult though, to have this operation. Donations, volunteers and maybe another facility will help us get to that place. God gives a clear instruction to us – serve people and love – and we receive the order. Love is the most ingredient in our kitchen.”

Love Kitchen serves free meals to anyone in need on the first Thursday of every month from 5:30-7:30pm at 15-17 May Street in Hartford. Beginning in January, meals will be served twice monthly. To view the specific calendar of dates, visit Love Kitchen’s website by clicking here or call (860) 728-5199 and leave a message to Dr. Gladys Santiago.

You can help Love Kitchen continue to serve hot, nutritious meals to the community! In addition to volunteer assistance, they are currently in need of food, beverages, plates, forks, tables, chairs and more. To learn more about donating, click here, or get involved as a volunteer, click here.