Interview by Mackenna Caughron
Wayne is a chef at the Bowery Mission, currently working across their Bowery and Tribeca campuses to serve New Yorkers experiencing homelessness.
I met Wayne while he was in the throes of dinner preparation. His meals look outstanding — no surprises there, as his food fuels thousands of hungry New Yorkers and counting. It’s apparent why he’s so effective at his job — not only is he an expert in the creation of hot meals, but also his presence emits warmth. Spending an hour with Wayne (without even tasting his food, mind you), I felt lifted.
I asked Wayne several questions to learn more about his journey to the Bowery Mission and the recent impact of the pandemic.
What is your first memory of The Bowery Mission?
In 2012, I experienced temporary homelessness. I was staying at a nearby shelter, not far from the Bowery Mission’s flagship campus at 227 Bowery. At the time, I’d go to The Bowery Mission to get food, get clothing, but I didn’t know much about the organization overall. For two years, I held occasional jobs but was having a hard time finding steadier work and housing.
In 2014, I signed up for the Bowery Mission’s men’s residential program. By October of that same year, I had graduated from the program and secured a job at the organization’s Avenue D Campus.
How did you transition from program participant to staff member?
When I first got into the program, we had daily tasks. It gave us something to do, but it also taught us skills. I spent my time in the kitchen, working with the chefs and volunteers.
It wasn’t easy at first. We serve a wide variety of people dealing with extreme circumstances. To be on the front line of serving food while monitoring interactions could be tough. Some folks direct the challenges of their day toward you. Over the years, I’ve better understood where they’re coming from and why they act this way.
In my time working at the Bowery Mission, I’ve also worked at their Mont Lawn Camp and Retreat Center in the Poconos of Pennsylvania, which was an incredible experience. It is beautiful, 200-plus acres with a retreat center, a gym, basketball court, rock climbing wall — the works. Compared to the city, there are no sirens, no city noises. Seeing the organization’s full-circle impact makes me feel more strongly about working at the Bowery Mission.
How have you grown throughout your transitions from program participant to graduate to staff member across campuses?
On a personal level, I’ve learned that serving a person a great meal does a lot. Initially, I cooked to keep busy and develop my skills. Now, I look for the relief on a client’s face. I see in their demeanor when I’ve removed the worry of having to feed themselves.
I also learned to communicate thoughtfully. If I’m met with aggression, I temper the conversation to encourage different behavior.
All our locations operate differently, some campuses are more focused on emergency shelter, some are focused on residential programming, but my focus is always to make a good meal.
Do you notice changes in donations during recent times?
Being in the food industry myself, I’ve seen how hard it is for restaurants right now. They’re not receiving the same customer base. But it’s amazing how our donation partners have pulled together and said, “even though we’ve been affected by this negatively, that shouldn’t put a damper on what the Bowery Mission is trying to do.”
People are still trying to gather as many resources as they can to help. We’re now getting packaged food. Companies and organizations are preparing meals and putting them in containers and bringing them to us, hundreds at a time every day.
Not only does it make our job a little bit easier, knowing that we have people supporting us, but it allows us to go full force in serving people who really need it. We are able to execute a battle plan so that we can best serve guests, who, unfortunately, can’t shelter in place like many New Yorkers can.
How do you get a feeling of appreciation in this work?
When I go home from work, I see many of the people we serve on my commute. When they see me, they give me a shout-out, “Hey Chef!” That feels good.
Also, if I do see a person asking for food, I get to tell them about the Bowery Mission. All they have to do is be on time to receive a meal.
I was very appreciative that all staff and volunteers were offered resources through the Bowery Mission to isolate and safely navigate COVID-19.
What is the lesson learned from COVID-19?
Among New Yorkers, the issue of homelessness can be divisive. Some folks want to help, while others think people should be “on their own.” The pandemic has proved anyone can fall on tough circumstances. You get behind on bills, you can lose your job, and you can lose your housing.
We all need help sometimes, and whatever events happen in this country, we can all try to be part of the solution rather than the problem.
New Yorkers can catch flak for being “rude” or “brash,” but when things go down, we know how to come together.
Wayne can be found making meals on weekdays and weekends across the Bowery Mission’s campuses. If you want to volunteer, donate items, or give financial support to the Mission, please visit their website.
Mackenna Caughron works as a consultant, though her passions include writing, photography, and advocacy. You can find more of her writing on MackennaLee.com and reach her at shecapturesphotographs@gmail.