GREENSBORO — On Tuesday afternoon, about 40 people showed up at a vacant shop downtown to eat a free meal.
The meal was a welcome respite.
The men, women and children that came are all challenged in some way by not being able to afford regular meals or stable housing.
The meal came with a special dessert —birthday cake.
They met for food and cake for a special reason, to celebrate Amy Murphy‘s 60th birthday.
Murphy has become a staunch advocate for those challenged by homelessness. For over four years, she has served a free fried-chicken meal, donated by a local Church’s Chicken, to about 60 to 80 people on Monday mornings at Center City Park.
Murphy, with the help of Greensboro Urban Ministry, Cone Health and United Healthcare, also distributes two booklets to help people find food. The Little Green Book lists organizations that offer free meals throughout the week. The Little Blue Book provides information on food pantries.
She has become known as “The Chicken Lady” because of the silly chicken hat she wears during the meals.
Some, like Betty Patterson, just call her “mama.”
It was Patterson’s idea to have a birthday gathering for Murphy. Patterson, or Miss Betty as she’s called, wanted to return the favor for Murphy taking her to lunch for her own birthday.
“She’s always doing something. She’s helping someone. She’s taking someone to the grocery store. Her answering machine is always full,” Patterson said. “We can’t pay her, but we can show her our appreciation.”
The plan started small. Patterson just wanted to treat Murphy to lunch at Crafted: The Art of the Taco. She had overheard Murphy say she liked the downtown restaurant. Patterson wanted to invite some of their friends from the Monday morning breakfasts.
Reaching out to folks in the homeless community isn’t easy. So Patterson put up fliers around Center City Park directing folks to go to the restaurant at 1 p.m. Aug. 1 and said guests would be responsible for their own meals. Patterson would provide dessert.
Murphy realized the implication of an open invite to a whole community. So she copied Crafted owner Kristina Fuller on a Facebook post about the gathering.
Fuller owns and operates Crafted with her mother, Rhonda Fuller. They knew that having an undetermined number of people show up at the restaurant at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday would create a challenge during the lunch rush.
So the Fullers stepped up to the plate.
They decided to cater a free meal in a vacant retail shop at 220 S. Elm St. The Fullers recently purchased the space, formerly Mack and Mack, and plan to move Art of the Taco into it next year.
Rhonda Fuller reached out to retailers in the community for help.
Michelle Schobert of Party Makers agreed to provide tables and chairs. Tony Doles of Party Chick and Paper agreed to provide the glam with a banner, balloons and confetti.
Cheesecakes by Alex donated cookies,
“If we were going to do it, we had to do it right,” Rhonda Fuller said.
By 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, people started lining up outside the empty shop.
When the doors opened, people filed in for plates of barbecue chicken, baked beans, coleslaw and rolls — all food that Kristina Fuller had prepared at her other restaurant, Crafted: The Art of Street Food.
The food was served by a handful of folks who sometimes help Murphy with the weekly fried-chicken meals.
Plastic cups of iced tea quenched their thirst.
Murphy offered a prayer as murmurs of “amen” floated in the air.
“Lord, we are so grateful that you bring us together as a community. … Let us understand, too, that you really do have the whole world in your hands.”
Friends signed two large cards for Murphy. There were even a few gifts, such as a chicken-print apron and a toy chicken that bobbed up and down and laid plastic eggs.
“She’s a blessing to Greensboro. It’s a wonderful gathering. It is great fun and fellowship,” said Mike Robinson, who has been going to the Center City Park meals since Murphy started them.
“It takes teamwork to make the dream work. These people keep this community going,” said friend Lawrence Crommie as he gestured at the volunteers serving food.
Murphy was clearly overwhelmed by the shower of gratitude.
“It’s been an amazing and incredible journey,” she said, fighting back tears.
She says the people she has met through her efforts have become her friends.
“There’s a big difference between being behind the serving line and being among these people,” Murphy said. “I don’t like the word ‘homeless.’ You feed a baby or a dog. I don’t feed the homeless. I serve people food, just as if they were in my house. We’re all the same.”
And Miss Betty made good on her promise for dessert. The sheet cake featured a photo of Murphy.
“If all the people she helps came today, this place wouldn’t hold all of them,” Patterson said.
“She is the sweetest thing,” Murphy said of Patterson. “Miss Betty is not powerless. Look at what she’s done.”