Thursday, January 15, 2009

Soup's on! Couple share food with neighbors

Ola Myers, 77, (left) came by Rosie Haith's (right) apartment Wednesday for some soup and corn bread. Clinton Haith (center) will carry the soup to Myers' apartment. Betty Bush, 72, is in the background waiting with her bowl.

Photos by Stephanie Klein-Davis | The Roanoke Times

Ola Myers, 77, (left) came by Rosie Haith's (right) apartment Wednesday for some soup and corn bread. Clinton Haith (center) will carry the soup to Myers' apartment. Betty Bush, 72, is in the background waiting with her bowl.

Rosie Haith hands fellow Morningside Manor resident Marian Swofford a bowl of soup Wednesday.

Rosie Haith hands fellow Morningside Manor resident Marian Swofford a bowl of soup Wednesday.

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   Rosie Haith, 57, prepares a quadruple recipe of cabbage soup Wednesday in her apartment.

. Rosie Haith, 57, prepares a quadruple recipe of cabbage soup Wednesday in her apartment.

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Shanna Flowers is The Roanoke Times' metro columnist.

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For Rosemary Haith, home is a one-bedroom, subsidized apartment full of secondhand furniture in Morningside Manor.

The 57-year-old native of Maine and her husband, Clinton, live frugally on their disability income in their Southeast Roanoke apartment.

Medicare pays for the pills that Rosemary Haith takes for hypertension, and the former diner cook has painful and creaky knees that need replacing. Her husband is a disabled Vietnam veteran with a bad back.

Yet, despite all that, "Rosie," as neighbors call Haith, climbs out of bed at 5:30 every Wednesday morning to cook a free meal for anyone in her building who wants or needs it.

"My husband and I do this out of the goodness of our heart," Haith said this week, sitting at a small dinette set in her fourth-floor apartment. "I'm not doing anything anybody else wouldn't do."

Haith's generosity warms the heart because it recalls the biblical parable of the poor widow who gives her last coin for a greater good.

For Haith, the greater good is humanity.

"I love people," she said.

Haith's weekly act of kindness, which she has performed since October, also reflects a "pay-it-forward" trend that advocates recipients of good deeds to help others.

How much better off do you think the world would be if all of us acted so selflessly?

Every week, Haith feeds 40 to 50 neighbors. A note in her building's lobby reminds them not to forget Rosie's Soup Day: "Bring your bowl," it says.

It's soup day

Just before lunchtime Wednesday, Morningside residents trickled up to her door, walking and in wheelchairs. They carried bowls for her to fill with her famous homemade cabbage soup.

Homemade coconut and carrot cakes, and individually wrapped corn bread and no-bake cookies sat on a cart in the hallway just outside Haith's apartment. She ducked inside to fill each bowl from the pot of soup simmering on the stove.

She asked Lola Gill, who gripped a walker with a tray on it to hold her meal, if she'd like dessert.

"I shouldn't have it, but that coconut cake looks good," said the 65-year-old woman, eyeing the thick layer of white frosting sprinkled with coconut that smothered the confection.

Because Gill has a condition that makes standing difficult, she doesn't do a lot of cooking and most days she eats microwaveable dinners. She looks forward to Haith's home cooking every Wednesday at lunchtime.

As Gill pushed away down the hall, Claudette Benoit eased up with her bowl.

"This one is like a little bit of heaven on earth," said Benoit, 59, nodding toward Haith. "She's a special person. She's a great cook."

From humble stock

Haith comes from humble beginnings. She grew up as the sixth of eight children in a Maine family. When she was 12, she took over the family meals because her mother worked. That's when she developed a knack for making soup.

"We were raised poor," Haith said. "Soup night is whatever is left over, and you throw it in a pot."

Haith, who has two adult children, married at 17. In the early 1970s, she worked as a cook at a diner in Iowa.

When her marriage ended after 30 years in the mid-1990s, she moved to Michigan's Upper Peninsula and worked as a restaurant cook there.

She went back to Maine in 1996 and moved to Roanoke in 2000. She moved into Morningside for the first time a year later and served on its residents council.

At that time, the council allowed residents to cook their favorite dishes and sell them at holiday bazaars and other sales. When Haith sold her soup at them, it was a big hit.

She left for a couple of years to return to Maine. When Haith came back to Roanoke in 2007 and married her current husband, the council had changed the policy and banned residents selling their home-cooked food.

So Haith occasionally cooked and gave the food to help a few friends in the building. Requests from others kept coming.

Kindness returned

In October, she and Clinton decided to expand their giveaway to anyone who wanted the meal.

That's more than a notion for a couple on a fixed income whose cupboards are stocked with grocery-store discards.

The couple's weekly sharing depends in part on kindnesses bestowed upon them.

Once a month, the Haiths receive a small care package -- usually spaghetti, sauce and a few cans of green beans -- from a food giveaway program.

Clinton Haith also makes weekly visits to the food pantry at 17th Street Baptist Church in Southeast Roanoke, where he receives bread and a few fresh vegetables such as celery and potatoes.

The menu for "Soup Day," which sometimes features baked spaghetti, is based on whatever food the Haiths have on hand on any given Wednesday. The couple don't ask for anything, but some residents give them donations -- a potato here, a dollar there -- to help out.

Haith estimated that meat for the meals costs $10 to $15.

"Sometimes there isn't as much meat in the soup as I'd like," she said quietly.

From the reaction Wednesday, residents don't notice.

Ask Haith and she doesn't see her kindness as a big deal.

"I've never been rich. Never been materialistic," she said.

"I treat my neighbors as I'd want people to treat me."

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