By: Ahmad Graves-El
VINELAND, N.J. — “The game of life is a struggle to survive.” These powerful words, which come from the song The Game of Life (Score) by underrated Hip Hop group Dead Prez, ring true to many people’s ears across Cumberland County.
There are people who have worked at one job for 25 years and were close to retirement, which would have allowed them to receive their pension, only to be fired, unceremoniously, before they could fully reap the benefits of all their hard work.
There are people who were once able-bodied citizens who became permanently disabled from accidents and incidents that were no fault of their own.
There are people who have succumbed to temptations that have led them down the tortuous path of addiction causing debilitating ripple effects that destroyed their lives and the lives of family and friends, as well.
As human beings, it is truly our spiritual duty to support and uplift our fellow brothers and sisters when they are going through adverse circumstances and situations.
One Vineland resident has made it his lifelong mission to not forsake those who are in need of help.
Tony Centeno, a retired small engine technician, has volunteered his services at the Vineland Soup Kitchen, run by Spirit & Truth Ministries, located in the First United Methodist Church on Landis Avenue, for the last two years.
“The soup kitchen is a place where the homeless or anybody in need can come and eat,” Centeno says. “It’s [a] place where they can come in [and] be at peace.”
According to Centeno, the soup kitchen, which is open Monday through Saturday, from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., serves breakfast and lunch, feeding between 130 and 150 people each day.
“A lot of these people are sleeping out in the streets,” Centeno reveals. “[As a society] we don’t think about these things. We go home, we get a [hot] shower, get a nice warm meal [and] these people don’t have anything.”
Centeno has an abundance of experience when it comes to serving Vineland residents who are struggling to survive and prosper in this game called life.
For more than 20 years, he volunteered at the Cumberland County Women’s Center, which was a facility that assisted women who suffered from domestic violence. He has also spent time with Toys for Tots, the SPCA, and the Spanish American Relief Fund — among other volunteer organizations.
“You can’t take anything with you, but what you leave behind,” Centeno says, “[so] it’s always good to give back to the community.”
There was once an NFL quarterback named Kordell Stewart who earned the nickname “Slash” because of his unique ability to play multiple positions, including running back and receiver, at an extremely high level. If one were to bestow the moniker “Slash” to Centeno, it would be a perfect fit.
At the soup kitchen, he has played the role of public relations liaison, counselor, and is the one to go to if you are interested in being a volunteer there. However, there’s one role that he takes more pride in than anything else.
“I’m the head chef, so I make the breakfast [and] prepare the lunch,” Centeno says. “We cook everything fresh and make quality meals.”
Although he cooks and prepares a cornucopia of delectable dishes for those in need of a good meal, Centeno is certainly nothing like the “Soup Nazi” of Seinfeld fame.
“Everything’s homemade,” he says. “If I’m going to do turkey and rice soup, I cook the turkey and I debone the turkey by hand. I don’t do it out of a can. I make the stuff every day. […] And when I make soup, I’ll tell you what, there’s people that line up for the soup because my soup is so good,” Centeno says with a laugh. “My soup is the best.”
Proud of his work, he likes to share what he cooks for the patrons who come into the soup kitchen on Facebook.
“I don’t want to feed somebody something I would not eat. We want them to feel like they’re eating a meal that’s worthy of anybody,” Centeno says. “Just like a restaurant, we do gourmet meals like you wouldn’t believe.”
Unfortunately, he has received some lamentable responses from public members on his Facebook comment section regarding the people for whom he willingly cooks.
“People [say] ‘Well, you know, they’re drug addicts, alcoholics,’ ” he says.
Centeno wants his fellow citizens to understand that addiction is a sickness.
“Drugs and alcohol [are] a cancer. It’s hard for those people to get out of that. […] As a kid, you don’t see anybody say, ‘When I grow up [I want to be an addict].’ It happens to the best of us.”
Centeno is steadfast in the thought that the soup kitchen plays a beneficial role to many people in the city, not just those who come in for a warm meal and a place to stay.
“My philosophy and one of the reasons why I’m passionate about it is because when they’re eating here, they’re out of the streets [and] not committing crimes. It means the streets are safer for our children, for our community in general, and for themselves.”
Debbie Eisinger, a retired educator who taught in Vineland for 30 years, concurs with Centeno’s sentiments.
“Operation of the soup kitchen is an important entry point to services for individuals and families who are homeless or living in poverty,” says Eisinger. “It’s our hope that soup kitchen patrons become productive members of the community.”
Eisinger, who is a board member of the nonprofit organization that runs the soup kitchen, is also thankful that Centeno is on board to help support those citizens who have struggled in the game of life.
“Tony [Centeno] has been an invaluable asset to the soup kitchen, not only with his culinary skills, but in his position as public relations liaison,” she says. “He has brought much-needed awareness to the services the kitchen provides to the less fortunate in the greater Vineland community and to our needs at S&T’s mission in not only feeding the hungry but providing Beyond Feeding services.”
Centeno says there is only one requirement for members of the community who need to utilize the soup kitchen’s services and that’s to sign in, “ […] so we know how many meals we put out.”
According to Darlene Fiedler, another volunteer at the kitchen, they served 40,000 meals in 2019.
When asked if the soup kitchen patrons were grateful for its services, Centeno says “Yes!” emphatically.
“Ninety-nine percent of them do. I’m not saying all of them, you know, some have [real] issues. But when they’re in their right mind, they’re very thankful.”
The soup kitchen, which receives food donations from the Community Food Bank of NJ, also accepts food, clothes, and other donations from good Samaritans from around the area.
“We are always in need of monetary donations, gift cards to local markets, products; all paper products, coffee, powdered iced tea mix, toiletries and all sizes men’s underwear,” Eisinger says.
In his efforts to help those who are struggling in the game of life, Centeno has come to realize, sadly, that as a society, “We forgot to be humane to human beings.”
Centeno hasn’t forgotten, which is why he spends six days a week helping to cook, clean, and console the patrons who have no other place to go to get a warm, healthy meal, a moment of comfort, and the feeling that they are truly a part of humanity.
Those who volunteer at the soup kitchen also have high aspirations they hope to achieve in their efforts to assist their brothers and sisters who are in need.
Eisinger says, “It’s our goal, to someday in the future, have our own facility so we may continue and expand our services to assist our patrons in transitioning back into mainstream society as productive members of the community.”
For more information about how you can help call (856) 692-2603 or go to spirittruthsoupkitchen.org