April 17, 2017

From volunteering as a teen, to building a nonprofit that feeds a community

A chance encounter at a soup kitchen inspired this Army veteran to start the Good News Community Kitchen in the D.C. area

Mercedes N. Kirkland-Doyle founded The Good News Community Kitchen in 2015. Photo courtesy of Mercedes N. Kirkland-Doyle

Mercedes N. Kirkland-Doyle learned of the power that volunteering can have the very first time she served others as a young student in her hometown in South Carolina. Since then she’s been hooked.

Now she is the founder and Executive Director The Good News Community Kitchen, which serves those in need in the Washington, D.C., metro area.

We asked Mercedes to share her story with us. You can learn more about the organization by following them on Instagram @t.g.n.c.k and Facebook.

This questionnaire has been edited for length and clarity.

Describe your community:

Our audience consists of the unsheltered homeless, those in transition, and established residents throughout Northern Virginia and the Washington, D.C. metro area. Our demographics range from white, black, Hispanic, Asian, African, Caribbean, toddlers, school-aged students, middle aged, and the elderly.

When did you start your community work?

My very first time serving another person started during my Confirmation process as a youth at St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church in Columbia, South Carolina. While I preferred cooking and packaging the soup and sandwiches, I was asked to help hand out the meal bags while one of my peers used the restroom. The very first person I handed a bag to was a very young little girl. I, completely naive at the moment, couldn’t understand how a little girl could be on the streets or in a soup kitchen line for Sunday dinner. The way it felt to give her that bag and watch how excited she was over something I took for granted—a meal—was and still is indescribable. The power of something so simple, a sandwich and cup of soup, meant the world to this little girl. After that moment, I was always finding a way to get to church to help feed the local unsheltered homeless.

I continued to serve others while at every duty station during my enlistment. After transferring to Northern Virginia, my two children and I immediately began donating kits to the local shelter. I started writing my thoughts down, slowly forming my programs and then eventually I put 100 percent into writing my bylaws and policy letters. The Commonwealth of Virginia legally acknowledged our organization on March 4, 2015, and in 2016 our volunteers logged more than 1600 official volunteer hours and distributed well over 3,000 meals.

My community is full of love, concern, thoughtfulness, and compassion.

The Good News Community Kitchen hosts a meal in downtown Washington. Photo courtesy of Mercedes N. Kirkland-Doyle

What inspired you to do this work?

While I didn’t have the best childhood, I surely didn’t have the worst. We struggled and faced various barriers that many unconventional households face. My grandparents raised me, my three brothers, and our oldest cousin. I recall several of my grandmother’s younger friends, church members and neighbors, playing an instrumental role in my life. As an adult, I can’t thank those ladies, including my mother, enough. It truly does take a village of individuals who want to come together for the greater good. From this realization I grew to understand that our community is only as strong as our most fragile resident and if I can play a role, no matter how small or large, to help someone in my community advance or change their situation, I will.

What ways are you helping to make your community thrive?

Our organization provides a basic need: food. By nourishing those who are hungry we believe that we position ourselves to establish rapport and build trust. Through this bond we anticipate creating the opportunity to expose those we assist to additional resources that will benefit them if they are truly ready to transition.

I love setting up a hot food line in public and watching children all the way up to my elders enjoy a warm, delicious southern meal. But my ultimate goal is to put them in front of a solution to initiate their transition (i.e.: healing, substance abuse, domestic violence, mental/behavioral health, economics empowerment and workforce development). We distribute essential hygiene items such as toothpaste, floss, deodorant, socks, baby wipes, hand sanitizer, chapstick, bar soap, and feminine hygiene items. We learned that, while a warm meal is great to have, it is also easier to come by than an item in our hygiene kits. We provide gently used professional attire for those transitioning back into the workforce along with performance-based interview techniques and resume writing workshops for Veterans. In the fall we collect gently used coats and blankets to distribute to school-aged children and the unsheltered homeless.

Our Back to School Community Cookout celebrates the beginning of the school year and encourages preparation and excitement over learning. We pass out school supplies to assisting families in underserved neighborhoods. During Christmas, we collect brand new toys, host a community wrapping party (with coco and refreshments) to ensure local children involved in any Department of Family Services program receives something for Christmas. Each gift also includes a journal to encourage the creative writing process.

Our biggest initiative is called Meals 2 Go Kits. These kits are specifically designed for children who have identified not having access to a guaranteed meal outside of school hours. These kits consist of flavored oatmeal, saltine crackers, creamy peanut butter, Chef Boyardee pasta, and vegetable soup.

I would like to think our greatest yet most invisible accomplishment is the unity our volunteer networks display. Various backgrounds come together, without a doubt, to ensure our mission is accomplished!

What do you love about your community?

I love everything about my community. We stick together, come together, and have no problem with helping others. My community is full of love, concern, thoughtfulness, and compassion. We realize the problem is greater than our differences and that in order to truly “rebuild and restrengthen” it takes work.

My children and I moved here toward the end of 2014 and were welcomed. The camaraderie is similar to my U.S. Army days and was just what my family and I needed. We have established community partnerships with The Rotary Club of Lake Ridge, Pi Lambda Lambda and Kappa Psi Chapter of Omega Psi Phi, Inc., Old Bridge United Methodist Church, Woodbridge Senior High School, the Prince William County Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., Neabsco Elementary School, Featherstone Elementary School, Occoquan Elementary School, and the Department of Family Services. Our local grocery chains, Walmart, and businesses support our efforts in helping others by assisting us with the resources we need to accomplish our mission and volunteer with us to help.

What’s one thing you want outsiders to know about your community?

My community extends throughout Northern Virginia all the way to the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. When it comes to barriers and critical needs we see no borders and have the heart, time, and ability to help those in need. Our community embraces change and genuinely wants the best for all. Our TGNCK community will be expanding to Columbia, South Carolina, and Charlotte, North Carolina, as well! We are a growing community with one focus and that’s to add value to the lives of others.

What leader or leaders inspired you?

Mother Teresa, Oprah Winfrey, Jayne Kennedy Overton, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Command Sergeant Major (Ret.) Patricia Keit.

Margaret Myers

Margaret Myers is the editor of The Renewal Project.