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For almost 15 years, The Soup Ladies have been serving food to first responders during emergencies both close to and far from home.
Now the Rotary Club of Maple Valley is hoping residents of King and Pierce counties will help this group of 80-or-so volunteers expand their efforts by buying them a replacement four-wheel drive truck.
The GoFundMe effort was officially launched on March 14, 2019, and has raised just over $8,600, a little shy of a quarter of the Rotary’s goal of $45,000.
“If you’re looking for a cause or a group of folks helping out the community to get behind, I couldn’t think of a better one,” said Ehrin Stumpges, the Rotary president. “The Soup Ladies have affected and helped out so many of those on the front lines…. it’s an easy cause to get behind.”
Greg Durbin is a Rotary volunteer who spearheaded a committee to look for a possible truck for the Soup Ladies
“She goes to a lot of wooded areas where she needs… a good vehicle to get around in our backyard and across the country,” Durbin said in a phone interview. “We’re going to purchase it outright and have all the stickers on it and all that.”
Ginger “Mama” Passarelli, founder of the nonprofit organization, was ecstatic to hear of the campaign, since one of the trucks she has been using — a two-wheel drive that already had more than 100,000 miles logged when it came into her possession — can no longer safely follow first responders into some emergency situations.
“We will go to areas where, seriously, I will leave the keys in the truck and say, ‘OK, somebody turn me around, because I will not do it,’ ” she said. “I just let them turn it around.”
That truck, and its passengers, had a particularly scary experience last summer when the Soup Ladies accompanied first responders on an evidence search, Passarelli said. The vehicle began fishtailing while descending an unpaved road that lacked any guardrails preventing anyone from plummeting off the edge.
After that, she decided her organization needed a new truck, and mentioned it to the Rotary during their March meeting.
She had expected that, if the Rotary was going to help The Soup Ladies at all, it would be by helping them secure a used vehicle.
But to her surprise, it appears the Rotary has had discussions with Enumclaw’s Fugate Ford for purchasing a brand-new vehicle “below cost” for Passarelli’s team. A Fugate Ford salesperson confirmed the discussions in a May 6 interview, adding that they’ve done business with The Soup Ladies before and that they respect the work they do.
“I was so, truly, overwhelmed,” Passarelli said, recalling when the Rotary made their decision. “It just shows you the heart of the community.”
Before The Soup Ladies was even an idea in her head, Passarelli, then a Black Diamond resident, was already in the habit of bringing soup to her Maple Valley church. After a few years, she decided this was something she wanted to spend the rest of her life doing.
Her big breakout was in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit Mississippi. This was Passarelli’s first time seeing a natural disaster, “and it changed me big time,” she said.
“When we were down there, we were feeding all the first responders [but] we were in a restricted area. Nobody was allowed in this area. I don’t even know how we got in there, other there was this guy from Kentucky who said, ‘Hey, we need help cooking,’” she added.
She recalled asking these first responders who took care of them while they were working on taking care of others.
“They worked hard. But they’d sit in their vehicle and eat MREs (“Meals, Ready to Eat”), or granola bars, whatever they had in their vehicle. They’d stock up on stuff, but it would all be shelf-stable, because they were out working,” she continued. “Outside the restricted area, everyone was getting fed. But inside the restricted area, where the people were doing really hard work, they got nothing.”
On her first trip out to that area, Passarelli served between 700 and 1,000 meals. On her second trip out to that area on a later date, she served more than 3,500. She went to Mississippi six times after the hurricane hit.
She found the same situation, albeit on a smaller scale, happened when local firefighters and police officers had to be on a scene of an emergency — once someone was less busy than the rest, they’d be sent to pick up something fast and cheap.
As a woman in touch with her Italian roots, Passarelli couldn’t let that fly, and created The Soup Ladies in response.
Over the last decade and a half, Passarelli and her team have fed first responders across the nation. She went to Galveston, Texas, when it was demolished by Hurricane Ike in 2008, New York when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, Shawnee, Oklahoma when it was hit with tornadoes in 2013, and spent 16 days at the Oso mudslide site here in Washington in 2014.
But mostly, she works locally, keeping an eye out for fires and other larger emergencies that require first responders to be on scene for long shifts, even days at a time.
The Soup Ladies also go to mass shooting sites, like the Oregon Umpqua Community College shooting in 2015 and the Burlington, Washington shooting a year later.
“Shootings are hard,” she said.
Cooking for first responders is not an easy job, she continued, adding that it can be as psychologically stressful as it is physically taxing.
Because of this, several of the Soup Ladies are chaplains — Passarelli herself is the chaplain for the Black Diamond Police Department and several other local police and fire agencies, which gives her even more tools to make sure her volunteers are safe.
“The Soup Ladies see and hear a lot,” she said.
Now retired and living in Buckley, Passarelli is looking forward to continuing her local and national service with a new truck. Even while talking with reporters last weekend, she was bustling over two large vats of soup to take out to a scene.
She couldn’t say where she was going, for security reasons.
“We’re just going locally… and we’re going to go feed people,” she said, stirring the pot. “Really, that’s all we need to know.”
There’s no set timeline at the moment, but Durbin and Passarelli hope enough money for the truck will be raised so that The Soup Ladies have access to it by July 1, in time for the fire season to really pick up.