ESPAÑOLA — Upon being seated at the dinner table, Tommy Lopez bowed his head for prayer. He then removed a fanned napkin from a glass and folded it in his lap, just as a volunteer in a suit and tie offered to pour some sweet iced tea.
As music played, Lopez — who said he has a long history of homelessness but currently lives with family — tapped his hands in tempo and bobbed his head. And when volunteer waiters began making rounds with food, he stared wide-eyed at the colorful salads and large chicken entrees.
Lopez was one of 22 guests at the inaugural Friday Night Dining event at San Martin de Porres Soup Kitchen in Española — an upscale restaurant-style, three-course meal for low-income and homeless people.
The fine-dining experience, complete with a waitstaff, coat check and restroom attendants, is one small way to make a big difference in the lives of people who are often overlooked, organizers say. They hope the concept becomes a monthly gathering.
Johnnie Mae de Schweinitz, founder of Friday Night Dining, said she believes those in need, the elderly and the homeless are too often forgotten. Instead, she said, “They deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.”
De Schweinitz — who handed invitations out prior to the event and prepared extra food bags for those who didn’t make it in time for the first come, first served dinner — said she started brainstorming the idea about three months ago after a gourmet meal at Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe. It seemed unfair that most lower-income people don’t have access to beautifully prepared, locally sourced meals, she said.
“They’re used to having that sort of soup kitchen food,” said de Schweinitz.
She’s a bit of a foodie who enjoys sampling the fare at local restaurants with her husband.
“Chefs are like artists, and when you taste it, it’s amazing,” she said. “I said to myself, ‘Why not have a fine dining for needy, elderly and homeless, so they can have food and music, and have people wait on them, too?’ ”
Immediately, she began rallying volunteers through her weekly yoga class and reaching out to organizations for funding. Within two weeks, she said, she raised nearly $1,000 to host the first dinner.
Eventually, said de Schweinitz — who is retired from the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation — she’d like to develop a nonprofit organization offering the meal service nearly year-round with an expanded guest list.
For the next dinner on July 26 she hopes to more than double the number of guests to 50, she said, as well as move out of the soup kitchen space to a bigger location that could eventually accommodate more than 100 people.
But with growth comes greater need for volunteers and funds.
“I can’t keep it going unless I have more volunteers,” she said, adding all helpers must be at least 21.
Rick Bailey, a volunteer at Friday night’s dinner who is president of Northern New Mexico College, said he feels confident the nonprofit will be a success.
“If there’s one thing I know about the Española Valley, it’s that people will bend over backward to help each other,” he said.
During the dinner, volunteers spread across the building, greeting guests at the door and checking their coats and backpacks. A volunteer restroom attendant offered paper towels after people washed their hands, and waiters outfitted in formalwear meandered among the tables to serve food and refill glasses.
As music from Pojoaque-based band Missy & Co. played, folks from Bon Appetit Catering finished their preparations in the kitchen. Then, one by one, the meal was served: a house salad; a rotisserie chicken with mashed potatoes, a side of carrots and a helping of green beans with bell peppers, and finally, a homemade apple pie from Española’s Lovin Oven Bakery Shop, accompanied by coffee.
Guests used polished silverware and salt and pepper shakers that stood alongside a flower arrangement of African lilies and carnations in the center of each table.
“It’s like a fancy restaurant,” said Maria C. Montoya, who has lived in low-income housing right down the road from the soup kitchen for 23 years. “I’ve never seen anybody do anything like this here. It’s amazing.”
It’s important, de Schweinitz said, that the food “is not canned, processed stuff.”
“Let them taste food from the local farmers, from their community,” she said. “We have fresh fruits and things right here in our valley. … I want to support local.”
The food, the music, the ambience, “It gives people a beautiful evening,” Bailey said.
“When you go to a nice environment or you have a nice meal out, it lifts your spirits,” agreed Rita Cash, a volunteer from Santa Fe. “That’s what need to see more of — reaching out and helping people.”
As plates were cleared and pie was served, several guests commented that the evening gave them hope.
“It shows that people care. They’re willing to give and to help people,” said 39-year-old Anthony Trujillo, who lives in low-income housing.
“It makes me feel special,” Lori Lopez, currently homeless, said through tears. “It’s nice being here. … I have to keep my head up.”
Seeing these results, de Schweinitz said, is a reminder to show compassion not just once a month, but always.
“It’s practicing love and kindness,” she said. “Are you practicing living that every day?”
On the web
• For more information on Friday Night Dining or to learn how to volunteer, email FNDEspanolaNM@gmail.com.