On a cold, wintry Sunday night Alan Leao is meeting old friends.
“How are you doing? Can I get you a sandwich?” Leao asks as he ladles hot soup on a Lawrence street corner.
Leao, who has made the long drive from Pepperrell, has been volunteering on the Lazarus House Soup Truck for 11 years. The friends he is meeting are dozens of men and women who had lined up for what may be their one hot meal of the day.
“It’s a lot of the same people. You get to know them and what they want. They are all special,” Leao said. “They all have stories. I just love them and Lazarus House loves them. That’s the big thing to show them.”
As those waiting make their way slowly to the front of the line, Leao asks each a question personal enough that they know he remembers and cares about them.
Some are homeless, and one man who he holds in a tight embrace is going through a difficult time.
“He was very emotional, he is losing friends and he is sad. And I want him to know that we love him,” Leao said. “It means something to me to be able to convey that message to him. It’s not just about giving food, it is letting them know we care.”
Leao first learned about Lazarus House, which works to fight poverty in the Merrimack Valley, reading a newspaper article and was intrigued. He started out in the shelter, organized the food pantry, and then heard about the soup truck.
Once worried he would let down those who were waiting for a hot meal, he drove two hours through a crippling snowstorm to drive the truck.
“I wouldn’t not come back. I look forward to his,” Leao said. “I wish there wasn’t a need. I wish it was a perfect world, but it’s not a perfect world.”
Over the years, he has brought friends, his and neighbors’ children, and on this Sunday night, his girlfriend J.J. Doak has joined him for the first time.
“This is one of the big things in my life and I wanted her to see it,” he said.
“I think he genuinely enjoys touching base with people and seeing how everybody is doing,” said Doak, who described her experience on the soup truck as “simply great.”
“Beyond just handing out a few items they might need, he genuinely wants to check in with people,” she said.
As he is closing up the soup truck for the night, a late arrival suddenly appears on the street corner.
Leao reopens the truck to get him soup, sandwich and new blanket.
“My friend, good to see you, be well,” he said, welcoming him with as much warmth as the very first person in line.