A 26-year Air Force career that took Jeanie Cross to Strategic Command assignments around the country and from the Philippines to Europe, Saudi Arabia and to Moscow hadn’t prepared her for this puzzle.
Even the skills she’s gained in her new career as a policy analyst for the federal government can’t help her this Friday morning. What should she do with the crate of okra sitting in front of her in the kitchen of Central United Methodist Church in Arlington, Va.?
For the past five years this decorated officer, who served in Desert Storm and the early years of the Global War on Terror and helped stand up the NATO military liaison mission in Moscow in 2002, has volunteered as chief cook at the church’s Friday morning breakfast for Arlington County’s homeless veterans and street people. Working in coordination with Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network (A-SPAN), Cross and her crew of dedicated volunteers provide a place where those in need can escape the heat or cold and enjoy a home-cooked meal featuring Cross’s culinary magic.
Cross reports she began helping at the breakfasts in 2010. Previously, her husband Gene Cross, the former church pastor Reverend Richard Cobb and other men of CUMC had opened the church on Friday mornings, handing out hot coffee, juice and doughnuts. Going in to help one Friday on a day off from work, Jeanie Cross thought the group could do better by offering a hot and nutritious meal. Using all of her Air Force logistics training, Jeanie took over the kitchen and helped the men’s outreach program really take off.
From those early days of welcoming 10 to 20 individuals for coffee and pastries, the CUMC breakfast now draws about 100 people each week. Everyone also leaves with a bag lunch. Through A-SPAN, the church receives donations from the Arlington Food Assistance Center that help guide Cross’s menu planning. In addition, A-SPAN uses the space and time to bring support services directly to those who need help. A veterans’ representative, community health nurse and case managers are always on hand to directly connect individuals to available resources.
As Angelica Patrick, A-SPAN’s Rapid Rehousing case manager, shared recently, “This mission has been a good way for us to interact with people. Meals bring people together in a welcoming way and we always see those who come here bring others, so A-SPAN can help them.” Having a place to engage with potential clients in a comfortable, non-threatening environment helps the organization reach more people than they’d be able to just trying to find them on the streets, Patrick added.
Cross gives credit to understanding bosses, who’ve made it possible for her to have continued this volunteer mission for so long. Along with some of her co-workers, many often lend a hand at the breakfasts. She works from 5:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. or later Monday through Thursday in order to have Fridays off. She is still up in the early hours with husband Gene to open the church and start cooking every Friday morning, including the day after Thanksgiving and during the Christmas holidays. Plus, the Crosses lead a meal prep volunteer group each Thursday evening to get all the chopping, peeling and mixing done ahead of time.
Not many of us can boast the energy and motivation that Jeanie Cross seems to possess, to keep serving our country through her government job and helping fellow veterans with a meal and a smile each week. What drives her?
“I saw a need. How many of us drive or walk by a street person, maybe with a ‘Homeless Vet’ sign? If you give spare change, you are just facilitating and not solving the problem. These breakfasts are helping solve the problem,” Cross explained. “We are helping people into housing, into jobs. We are making a difference. The success stories make you feel great, seeing a veteran get a key or have someone come in to tell us they got a job.”
Cross said she and her husband will continue to lead the breakfast mission until it’s no longer needed, which may occur when Arlington County opens its permanent homeless shelter. But for now, Cross will be working her magic behind the big stove, making nutritious meals out of the loaves and fishes provided.
And that okra problem? She just had it chopped, mixed with a little egg and cream, dredged in corn bread mix from the AFAC donations, then stir-fried for a healthy version of fried okra. Another mission accomplished for this retired Air Force vet.