The Intermittent Volunteer’s Weblog

Befriending People in Dallas Who Are Homeless

A Child is Born December 24, 2013

Filed under: Christmas — Karen Shafer @ 10:08 pm

Christmas, 2013

“Every child comes with a message that God is not yet discouraged of Man.”


~~  Tagore


 “Ask yourself what you can do, and what you need to let go of, that God’s light of love and truth might shine through you.  Pray to Him to help you clear away the debris of fears, worries, resentments, or other limiting thoughts that create obstructions between you and Him, and between you and other souls.  

As the Lord Jesus shared our human nature and felt infinite compassion for us in all we pass through, let us try to be patient with ourselves and forgiving toward those around us.  Every though or action that reflects divine understanding and harmony allows God’s grace and blessings to flow into your life, which in turn can enlighten others in this world…”


~~  Sri Daya Mata,  Christmas Letter 2004, Self-Realization Fellowship of Paramahansa Yogananda



Small Things With Great Love December 19, 2011

Monday, December 19, 2011


Small Things With Great Love


My son-in-law sent me this story today.  What these two people are doing is not small, but the love they express — each in her or his own way — is great indeed.  It reminds me, despite the difficulties in the world, that there are people out there quietly doing wonderful things every day.  KS





Austrian chef, Catholic nun are spirit behind Trinity Cafe

Monday, December 19, 2011 01:16:00 AM

Dec. 19–TAMPA — Alfred Astl frets a lot.

And with good reason: He’s the chef at Trinity Cafe, a restaurant that serves the homeless and working poor in downtown Tampa. He operates on a razor-thin budget, stretching pennies instead of dollars, in order to feed the growing throng of hungry people who come for a free noontime meal Monday through Friday.

“He always thinks he’s going to run out, which he never does,” confides Sister Maureen Dorr, the 81-year-old Franciscan nun who stopped in to volunteer 10 years ago and never left.

“I tell him not to worry. I happen to know another man who multiplied. He really had a way with loaves and fishes, and so does Alfred.”

That’s how it is with the Austrian chef with the serious demeanor and the fun-spirited Catholic sister who’s a bit of a flirt. They are the yin and yang of Trinity Cafe. He does the nourishing — creating innovative and well-balanced meals from soup to dessert at about $2 a serving. She does the nurturing — walking among the homeless guests to dispense hugs, give counsel and offer prayers.

“Sister Maureen is an angel on earth. And Chef Alfred is a grizzly with the heart of a teddy bear,” says Cindy Davis, program director. “They are the heart and soul of the cafe. To have them working here together is a real blessing for us and every guest who works through the door.”

Neither seeks out attention. But they got it anyway last month.

Sister Maureen was named a local hero by Bank of America, which came with a $5,000 check. Astl, 61, was chosen as a community hero by the Tampa Bay Lightning — an honor that came with a $50,000 award. Both directed their winnings to the cafe’s food account.

Davis says the windfall came at a time when the nonprofit needs it the most.

The cafe’s $455,000 annual budget — which depends on donations and grants — is being challenged by an increase in the number of people it serves. The limit was supposed to be 200 meals a day; that’s jumped to about 230. And looming in the future is a $650,000 project that will allow the cafe to relocate from its current cramped quarters at the Salvation Army to its own permanent building in the V.M. Ybor neighborhood.

When the cafe eventually moves, it will be open seven days a week. And it will keep that same “dining with dignity” tradition, using volunteers from churches and community organizations to serve patrons at tables covered in white cloths and set with silverware.

That’s a touch Astl insists upon.

Before coming to Trinity Cafe, he spent 35 years in the hotel and food industry, honing his skills as a chef in exclusive settings from Aspen to New York. He worked at a Four Seasons, country clubs, high-end inns and corporations. He owned his own continental restaurant in Tampa with wife, Sandy. He worked for the late George Steinbrenner’s Yankee Trader at Bay Harbor Inn. For four years, he served as division chef for five Rusty Pelican restaurants.

But for all the prestige and money that came with his career, Astl got burned out. He missed out on seeing his two sons grow up. Working six or seven days a week, sometimes 18 hours a day, took a toll on his health.

Then he saw the help wanted ad for a chef to work “five days a week, lunch only.” He thought it would be a nice break for a little while. That was 10 years ago.

Obviously, there are differences. He doesn’t deal in ahi tuna or Kobe beef anymore. He haggles with food proprietors on the cost of odd-shaped chicken breasts. $1.34 a pound? I’ll give you 60 cents.

Good quality food is a must, he says, “but I have to get it cheap.” And nothing is wasted. Today’s leftover braised corn is tomorrow’s corn chowder. Every meal starts with salad or soup, a healthy portion of protein, a starch, a vegetable, a dessert and a piece of fruit. That same gourmet style he developed when working in exclusive restaurants is reflected here.

“I approach this the same way I did everything else — I come in and do the best with what I have,” Astl says. “Only I know this is the only meal of the day for these guests.”

While the chef is working his magic in the kitchen, Sister Maureen is making the rounds in the waiting lines and at the tables. Some of the faces are familiar; once a week, she’s at the jail, counseling and ministering to those who ran afoul of the law. She has a special fondness for the men, and often offers herself as a dance partner in the middle of the dining room.

“Stay with God,” she whispers to a bearded man, sitting forlornly against the fence while waiting for the cafe to open. “He won’t abandon you. Don’t give up. He’s here.”

For 40 years, Sister Maureen worked in education as a teacher and administrator. She says this is just another extension of what she has done since entering religious life at age 17.

“St. Francis taught us about living out the gospel and serving the poor,” she says. “But truth is, I don’t minister to them. I minister with them. I firmly believe there are such good people who have had bad opportunities. They show me the way to God as much as I try to show them.”

She acknowledges her advanced age, but quickly dismisses any notion of retirement. “Nuns don’t retire,” she says with a laugh. “We just get recycled. As long as God gives you the health, you keep on moving.”

Yes, Astl and Sister Maureen admit, their personalities are different. He’s all business, quite serious about the balance between pinching pennies and providing a substantive meal. She’s quick to crack jokes and wrap her arms around a lost soul who needs a human’s touch. Both agree that those differences don’t matter. The bond they share — their compassion for the poor — trumps everything.

“She is marvelous,” Astl says with admiration. “Just marvelous how she connects with everyone.”

“And he is a God-centered man,” Sister Maureen says. “Though he doesn’t think he is, I know it’s true.”



Christmas Truffles Revisited (and not the kind that grow in the woods) December 24, 2010

Filed under: Christmas,Random Post — Karen Shafer @ 12:00 am

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas Truffles Revisited

(and not the kind that grow in the woods)

It’s a Christmas tradition for my three grandchildren and me to bake decorated sugar cookies together.  I prepare the dough the night before and have it well chilled when they arrive the next afternoon.  Then, each of them armed with a rolling pin or an improvised version of same, we roll, cut out, and sprinkle the cookies to our hearts’ content.


Generally, their mothers, my daughters, look on and expedite the creative process by shuttling trays of tree-, angel-, Santa-, star-, heart-, reindeer-, teddy bear-, stocking- and blob-shaped cookies from our decorating table into and out of the oven.  Inevitably in the process, portions of dough are eaten or dropped on the floor, and sometimes both. Consequently, their mothers are generally somewhat reluctant to eat what the grand kids and I bake.


When we’ve finished, our workspace and ourselves look as if we’ve been hit by the remnants of a flour, chocolate sprinkles, and colored-sugar explosion.  Louis, Cora and Anna are now eight, eight and six, but we’ve done this since they were much younger, and the younger the children, the exponentially larger the mess.


This year, though, two of these fabulous fellow cookie bakers, Louis and Anna, have moved to Boston with their mom and dad, Mandy and Arnaud, where they are having a wonderful, new kind of Christmas — one that involves a fluffy and pristine blanket of snow, a caring circle of friends, special traditions of service to those in need, and some serious snowball fights!  So this year Cora and her mom, Rose, still Dallasites, came over with the idea of executing what I thought was my brilliant innovation:  making chocolate Christmas truffles for our family and friends (and ourselves, too, of course.)


I was prepared with recipes copied and printed from the Martha Stewart Living web site for chocolate ganache and truffles.  (Pretty much every item I cook during the holidays is a Martha.)  I had bought some good quality bittersweet chocolate and some organic cream and gathered together all of the toppings in which we’d roll our lovely and [in my mind] spherical ganache delicacies:  cocoa powder, cinnamon, hand-crushed almonds and pecans, powdered sugar, and even some green-tinted sugar and multicolored sprinkles (yes, artificial dyes, but it’s Christmas!)


Cora and her mom arrived, and we made the ganache.  Cora is a marvelous kitchen presence, as, like me, she marvels at the changes in ingredients with the application of heat and mixing, which I like to talk about in terms of laywoman’s ‘physics’, trying to incorporate the teensiest academic reference into our process.  So we oohed and aahed as Cora poured the bubbling hot cream over the chocolate bits and began to whisk them together, as we watched them began to swirl around and then blend, transforming themselves magically from a liquid and a solid into a glorious, incorporated silky brown goo.  Mama Rose pitched in with the whisking.


Then we poured out the ganache carefully into pie plates to cool, as advised by Martha, refrigerated it and went off to run an errand.


But not quite a long-enough errand, it seemed to us later.


When we came home, Cora and I excitedly assembled our truffle-making supplies:  white lotus-petaled bowls of my mother’s individually filled with various sugars, cinnamon and cocoa powder.  Cora armed herself with the melon baller and me with the coffee scoop.  We removed the ganache from the ‘fridge — it looked glossy and solid.  Powdering our hands with cocoa powder (per Martha again), Cora carefully broke the surface of the ganache with her scoop and ladled it into her hand in order to form it into a ball and roll it in a topping.  Then, slowly but quite unstoppably, the lovely chocolate mixture oozed through her fingers and drizzled itself in streams into a contented puddle on top of the nest of cocoa powder.


“Awwww, mannnn!” we said in unison.


But we were undeterred.  Experimenting, Cora figured out that with handfuls of cocoa powder, she could make her ‘truffles’ resemble a melty semi-semi-semi-solid.  My process involved ladling scoops of the mixture onto a plate, then sprinkling the liquidy blob with a topping.


When Rose came into the room to see our results, she tried hard to compliment us, but could really only say, “OOooooohhhh…  Wow.”


Still, sort of like the quintessential ‘visions of sugarplums’ one hears about, visions of the elegant truffles Cora and I would make, nestle into small boxes I’d collected, and give out to neighbors and friends as Christmas gifts (and, of course, ship off to Boston) had danced in my head for weeks.  So after Rose and Cora went home, I surveyed the results of our splendid effort and felt it would just be wrong to go down in defeat.  “But I just wanted them to look pretty and round,” I whined to myself.


I re-refrigerated the chocolate blobbies, and, when I looked at them later, the magic of physics had indeed begun to reassert itself.  There was a subtle but noticeable change in their surface, from glossy to dull.  At last, they seemed to be ‘setting up’, so I gently reshaped them into balls, re-rolled them in their toppings, and laid them gingerly back on their plate in a picturesque pattern:  a cinnamon, a white sugar, a cocoa powder, a ground pecan.


And so, if you’re on our Christmas list, beware:  you may in fact be receiving Truffles Revisited.



P.S.  I just ate one…  OK, three.  Believe it or not, they’re actually quite good if one doesn’t think too much about the process.


P.P.S.  In a wonderful irony, Santa just delivered a gift at my house (don’t know how he did it and kept up his rounds — NORAD has him tracked in Australia around this time) with a gift of Lake Champlain Handmade Organic Truffles from my Boston family!  The Lemon Ginger I just ate was yummmm.