Operation Ice Machine brings a salad bar to the Soup Café

Soup-cafe,-Kimberly-and-Mark

Basin Electric Senior Business Analyst Kimberly Miller stands with Heaven’s Helpers Soup Café founder Mark Meier in front of the cafe’s new salad bar.

Since March, Basin Electric employees have been using their lunch hours to chop vegetables, wait tables, serve food, wash dishes, and clean – doing their parts for the Heavens Helpers Soup Café, a soup kitchen in Bismarck, North Dakota.

The Soup Café is different than a traditional soup kitchen in that it is set up as a restaurant – a way to serve its patrons with dignity and respect. When people come in, they seat themselves in a booth and volunteers take their orders and bring them their food. The Soup Café serves the homeless, elderly, low income, working poor, disabled, single moms and dads, their children, veterans, neighborhood after-school kids, individuals from group homes, and anyone who wants companionship.

This place, with its admirable mission, has become near and dear to the hearts of the many employees who have volunteered their time there. One of these employees is Kimberly Miller, senior business analyst at Basin Electric.

Miller recently took part in the Women’s Leadership Program, a six-month program dedicated to expanding women’s leadership skills. One of the exercises in the program is a philanthropy project, in which teams of two women are given $200 in seed money, and tasked with making it grow into something meaningful for a local charity. Miller’s partner was Kerri Kraft, an employee of North Dakota Workforce Safety and Insurance, which also encourages its employees to volunteer at the Soup Café. “Because both of our employers show support for the Soup Café, it was a natural fit for our project,” Miller says. “It is an organization that is so needed in our community and the need is continuing to grow. The work they do there is so important.”

The project began with Miller and Kraft meeting with Mark Meier, the Soup Café’s founder, to see if there was something the café really wanted or needed. “Mark said he’d love to be able to have a salad bar so he could offer fresh fruits, vegetables, and salads, but that he’d need an ice machine to make the ice needed to keep the items cold. He had the exact model all picked out, because it had to fit in a certain space in the kitchen,” she says. The ice machine cost $1,500 – a significant expense for an organization that relies solely on free-will donations.

That visit was the beginning of the project Miller and Kraft dubbed “Operation Ice Machine,” a fitting title given Miller is a Major in the North Dakota National Guard and accustomed to carrying out missions like the ones she performed during her recent deployments to Kosovo and Africa. “Failure was not an option,” she says in true military fashion. “My husband and I were fully prepared to split whatever we didn’t raise to be able to get Heavens Helpers that ice machine.”

Operation Ice Machine began by using the seed money quite literally. Miller and Kraft partnered with local garden store Plant Perfect to buy seeds and grow vegetable plants to sell at the Dakota Garden Expo, a large annual event in Bismarck geared toward gardeners and landscapers.

Along with the plants, the team put a donation box out at the event, and because it was held in April, which is relatively early in the season, more donations were collected than plants were sold. However, in addition to the money they raised, Miller says they were able to get the word out about the Soup Café and all the great work going on there, and some great connections were made.

Connections like the one made with Lady J’s, a local catering business that often wondered what to do with the leftover food it often had after catering large events. That food is now donated to the Soup Café. There were also several “professional volunteers” who, when they learned about the Soup Café, said they were going to add it to their volunteer rotation. And, the NSDU Extension Agency, one of the Garden Expo’s sponsors, offered to store the plants that didn’t sell in one of its greenhouses. After the plants matured, the produce they produced was donated to the Soup Café to help feed the hungry.

Soup Cafe, salad bar

Thanks to the new ice machine, the Soup Café can now offer a salad bar to its patrons.

After all was said and done, Miller and Kraft ended up surpassing their goal, raising $2,300 in cash and in-kind donations, enough to buy the ice machine, and successfully complete their mission. “Mark was so grateful and gracious,” Miller says. “We were so happy we were able to help him purchase the ice machine.” Shortly after the project’s completion, the ice machine was purchased and Meier was finally able to put in the salad bar he’d been waiting so long to be able to offer.

“People just love it,” he says of the salad bar. “We are so thankful for what these women did for us. Getting the ice machine has been a real blessing.”

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