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The Kennerly Family: Heroes Fighting Hunger in their Community

Devereux Interview (August 14, 2019)
by Rachel Brown

The ladies of the Kennerly family, mother Jean Kennerly and her five daughters, have devoted thousands of hours to feeding the hungry in their North Philadelphia community. Jean coordinates a soup kitchen at Haven Peniel United Methodist Church at 23rd and Oxford Streets, the church she has been attending for over 80 years. Her daughter Thelma runs the food programs at Devereux United Methodist Church just a few miles away. We sat down with Jean and Thelma to talk about their work as a family and how their involvement with our VIP program has helped them tackle hunger in their communities.


Coalition Against Hunger (CAH): To start, could you tell us about the history of Haven’s soup kitchen?

Jean Kennerly (JK): I started the soup kitchen over 25 years ago at Haven Peniel United Methodist Church after I retired because I, and about five other people from my community, wanted to give back now that we had the time. We got it going as only a soup kitchen, then we merged with another church that already had a food bank so that we could offer both services. We funded most of the food programs from our own pockets, getting some additional donations from a larger food bank before we were introduced to SHARE. Now, we have a soup kitchen every Tuesday from noon to 1PM, and the third Wednesday of every month we give out bags of food. I’m often cooking for close to 100 people; for Thanksgiving, it’s close to 300. A variety of people come through our doors, but many are re-entering after time in prison and are living in transitional housing. They tell us that they’re only eating cold cereal for breakfast, finding lunch at a soup kitchen, and then just eating a sandwich for dinner. At Haven, we want to feed people the right way. We give them a salad, a lunch entrée, dessert, and tea. Everything is served restaurant-style. People often tell us that this is where they get their best lunch, and it makes me proud.

Thelma Kennerly (TK): She was even honored by the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging last year. In their story on Jean, they called her the “Cornbread Lady,” because she’s famous for her cornbread.


CAH: How about the food programs at Devereux?

TK: I started in 2010 when I was still working. My mother nudged me to take off from work to attend VIP meetings with her, which is where I met Derek [Felton, CAH Community Organizer,] and I thought to myself, “this is a good idea, I want to get involved too.” In the beginning, I had about seven ladies that were retired helping me serve meals at Devereux United Methodist Church. I would fix the food, bring it to the church, and they would serve it. We have always served meals on Wednesdays, to coincide with bible study in case people want to stay. Our motto always been: Feed the Spirit…Feed the Soul. Later, we also started working with SHARE to distribute food, as well as became an emergency food cupboard. We started distributing senior boxes here about two years ago as well. Now, we’re feeding about 60 people weekly.


CAH: How did your anti-hunger work become a family affair?

TK: The idea came from my mom, then my four sisters and I joined in later. A combination of me and my sisters is always at either Devereux or Haven. Because we’re family, the five girls, we’ve always put everybody into whatever we do- one supports the other. Each of us has been important in keeping both programs going. It also helps that we have six other sister Methodist churches in North Philadelphia—it’s a system set up so that we can support each other. And when either program receives food donations, we’re splitting them so that everybody gets something. If there’s something I can give my mom at Haven, I’ll always give it to her. It’s the best you can do.


CAH: What other food programs do you offer to the community?

TK: In the summer, we have a weekly farmer’s market at Devereux. A farmer comes out and teaches the people in the community how to prepare fresh vegetables through cooking demonstrations. We also have a lunch program for the children, as well as the senior boxes. We’re really reaching all age groups in North Philadelphia.


CAH: Between the two of you, you have been involved in anti-hunger work for a long time. Have you observed any changes?

TK: I’ve seen an increase in people coming to our programs. I don’t know if it’s because more people know about the work that we’re doing and we are getting more emergency calls or because there’s more need, but there’s definitely more people coming. There are also so many people who come through here who are struggling to keep their electric on, or pay their rent. We can feed them, but we’re also trying to figure out how to help people meet other essential needs as well. Another big issue we’re hearing about is how to get the new Pennsylvania Real ID cards. Many people don’t have the money for that, and it will prevent them from accessing critical services.


CAH: What is the top piece of advice you would give to fellow leaders in Philadelphia’s anti-hunger community?

TK: I would tell them to advocate for anti-hunger issues among local leadership. Government leaders need to come back to their communities to hear directly from their constituents about what they need—many of them are so far from it now. Even the big politicians, they’re trying, but they need to live off of what these people support themselves with just for one week, and see if they can survive.


CAH: Anything else you would like to add?

JK: Come to the VIP meetings—you learn so much you never would have thought about otherwise. It helps you understand the real issues our communities are facing better than you could ever get from the news.