DeKALB – On almost any Wednesday evening you will find Walt Myers greeting people at the door at Feed’em Soup.
“I get here at 4 and we open the doors about 4:45 to let people in,” said Myers, 66. “As they come in, I’ll seat them and I talk to them.”
Myers, who knows what it is like to be hungry and homeless, knows the names of many of the regulars, and he strives to make them feel at home.
“I talk to a lot of people, and a lot of people will open up to you,” he said. “I learned about where they have come from and what they are looking for is someone that will just listen and understand them, and that’s what I do.”
The Wednesday night meals are open to everyone in the community, regardless of their ability to pay.
Myers attended Feed’em Soup’s first community meal in 2010 and has been a volunteer ever since. He sat down with MidWeek reporter Curtis Clegg to discuss his volunteer work, the evolving role of Feed’em Soup in the community, and the unusual moniker that was given to him by the merchants of downtown DeKalb.
MidWeek: Who gave you the title “Mayor of East Lincoln Highway?”
Walt Myers: I got the title because of the work I do with Feed’em Soup. I would go up and down both sides of the street to the shops to hand out fliers, and all of the owners got to know me and like me, and the next thing you know the store owners were saying, “You remind me of Harry Caray. When he was alive he was the mayor of Rush Street, and you’re kind of like the mayor of East Lincoln Highway.” They were happy because of what I was doing with Feed’em Soup, and they all wanted to get involved.
MW: Do you live in the downtown area?
WM: I used to, but I moved to College Avenue. But I still maintain my title.
MW: How long have you lived in DeKalb?
WM: I have been here all my life. A lot has changed over the years. I remember as a teenager in the ‘60s, you could drive on Route 23 to Sycamore going 80 miles an hour and it wouldn’t matter. Now you can’t do that. ...We’re trying to revitalize the downtown area. What they did out on Route 23 took a lot of business from the downtown area. I’m trying to get businesses to come back here.
MW: Do you work?
WM: I’m retired, and I spend a lot of my time here. I’m just trying to pay back and pay it forward.
MW: Are you paying back favors that other people did for you?
WM: Yes. I have been hungry and homeless. I had to do a stretch at Hope Haven. I’m no different than anybody else. I got laid off, I lost my job and I lost everything. I was down and out for a while, but then I was given the opportunity to get back on my feet.
MW: How did you get involved with Feed’em Soup?
WM: I have been with Feed’em Soup since they started. I handle public relations and I host the Wednesday night dinner. ...Me and my fiancee went to the first dinner they had, and we liked what we saw and we offered to volunteer. We have been with them ever since.
MW: What keeps you going back week after week?
WM: I like to help people, and I know a lot of people that need the help. We have other programs here that help people. If they need furniture, we help them try to find furniture. If they need food, we try to find them food to take home and we have a clothing store too. I’m 66 years old and I want to keep myself active.
MW: What are some of your favorite meals at Feed’em Soup?
WM: I like everything we serve here. It’s all pretty good, but my favorite thing is meat loaf.
MW: Have you gotten close to the people who attend Feed’em Soup dinners regularly?
WM: I have a lot of friends here, and a lot of volunteers who are friends. I always like meeting new friends because the way I look at it, if you don’t have friends you have nothing. I couldn’t imagine going through life without having friends.
MW: Is it mostly regulars at the dinners or do you see new faces every week?
WM: It’s a mix of regulars and new people. We get new people once every two to three months. We welcome them in and tell them the story of Feed’em Soup and tell them how we got started. ...We want people to be comfortable. Most people think this is a soup kitchen, but it is not a soup kitchen. We wanted it to be restaurant-style because we want our clients to be comfortable and to have some dignity. I have been in a soup kitchen and I’m glad it was there, but it was one of the most depressing places in the world.