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Serving the Homeless, One Home-cooked Meal at a Time

His name was Robert.

Of course, Deborah Ellis-Brock didn’t know that at first. The man outside the grocery store was just another one of the anonymous homeless people – another of the invisible tribe– that populated her San Francisco neighborhood.

Then Ellis-Brock spoke to him. She learned his story, his name, and how to make a difference in the world.

“Robert taught me that all you have to do is reach out,” Ellis-Brock says. “Helping doesn’t have to be a complicated process.”

Ellis-Brock founded Soul Food Sundays in San Francisco in 2005, shortly after meeting Robert. The aim of the program was simple: to nourish the bodies and souls of the homeless by preparing and eating home-cooked meals with them.  It was a small, grassroots efforts fueled by Ellis-Brock and a band of her neighbors and friends. Now, Soul Food Sundays has evolved into Soul Food Sundays International, and Ellis-Brock is expanding the organization to both Milwaukee and Haiti.

She couldn’t have done it without Alverno College.

Ellis-Brock moved to Milwaukee in 2008 and seized the opportunity to further her education. “I really felt a strong need to get an educational degree behind me,” Ellis-Brock says. “I looked at colleges in Milwaukee and fell in love with Alverno. I loved that it was a women’s college. And I really love the abilities-based curriculum. I think it’s one thing to get your book learning, but another to really have a strong focus in analysis, problem-solving, effective citizenship and a global perspective.”

While at Alverno, Ellis-Brock met Sister Judeen Schulte, professor of Nursing. “She was never one of my instructors, but we hit it off,” Ellis-Brock says.

It was Schulte who suggested that Ellis-Brock apply for the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U), a program launched by President Clinton to engage and support college leaders who want to address global challenges. “It was pretty fortuitous because I already had a proposal together for Soul Food Sundays,” Ellis-Brock says. “I had just been waiting for the right moment to launch it in Milwaukee.”

Ellis-Brock’s proposal was accepted and, in April, she (and over 1000 other college students from 75 countries) traveled to Washington University in St. Louis for three intensive days of learning and networking. “I’d gone to global events before, but the Clinton Global Initiative was a whole different scale. It was mind-blowing. We heard from world-class leaders like Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus and Bill Clinton – people who are really making great strides in the world. We also attended sessions to learn how to build capacity in our own organizations,” she says.

The organization also provides mentoring services for one full year, post-CGI U, and Ellis-Brock is already putting the plans she developed at CGI U into action. Thirty-some volunteers have already met at Ellis-Brock’s home to plan and coordinate meal cooking and outreach. She’s also working with the Milwaukee Police Department Homeless Outreach Team, partnering with the Milwaukee Mission, and making plans to get Soul Food Sundays started in Haiti. After she graduates in December with a degree in International Business, Ellis-Brock plans to explore social entrepreneurship as a tool for community change.

The plans sound elaborate, but both Ellis-Brock and Soul Food Sundays International remain grounded. “What’s more basic,” Ellis-Brock asks, “than sharing a home-cooked meal, talking to someone and listening to them?”