When, Where & Why…
It began in 1995 as a manuscript that no one wanted … and ended up as a 501c3 Foundation in 2013.
Located in Providence, Rhode Island, the organization continues the legacy of celebrated author Helen Hudson, whose life and work exhibited a relentless activism; telling the stories that no one else would tell; giving voice to those who do not have the power or position to speak. This active caring led her to participate in numerous causes – from civil rights marches in Selma and Washington… to documenting a woman’s travail in a Japanese internment camp. Between civic campaigns and raising a family, Hudson managed to publish seven books, receiving rave reviews from the likes of The NY Times, The New Yorker and The Chicago Tribune. Yet her seminal work about her most passionate issue, was rejected by her publisher. This “closed door” proved to be a blessing. Forced outside literary convention, the project could now create a path of its own that would embody Hudson’s mission: helping the homeless.
Dinner at Six: voices from the soup kitchen
In the early 1990’s, while in her 70s, Ms Hudson volunteered at local soup kitchens in New Haven CT. During those years, she became known as someone who could listen with her heart. Interested in their stories, she asked some of the guests if they would be willing to talk to her about their lives. Most consented.
By 1995 those interviews had grown into a manuscript called Dinner at Six: Voices from the Soup Kitchen; a candid portrayal of real people whose lives had manifested extraordinary courage in the face of hardship.
In 2002, after rejection by publishers, the family decided Dinner at Six would become an “in house” project. They would print, publish and distribute the book themselves. The Dinner at Six campaign would not be a commercial venture but a vehicle designed to help America’s marginalized citizens.
The books would be donated, free of charge, to organizations servicing the hungry and homeless.Those organizations would sell the books and keep all proceeds to help fund their operation. In keeping with the spirit of the campaign, it was suggested that the purchase of books be kept on a donation basis, with no set price, allowing the purchaser to give any amount he/she desired – from 50 cents to a $100 on up.
The campaign did a test run at a small gathering in St. Paul/St. James Episcopalian Church in New Haven’s Wooster Square. After a brief talk explaining the program, son Thomas set up a six-foot table loaded with books. Before the evening ended, $250 dollars had been raised from sales – all of it going to the Church’s soup kitchen.
Two weeks later, The New Haven Register wrote an article about the campaign: “Book on New Haven Homeless ‘a cry for awareness.’ Word spread and the Lanes expanded their program to other soup kitchens and shelters in Connecticut. Within a month, Thomas was in Maine and Massachusetts, talking on the radio about the project, hand-delivering books to soup kitchens.
From there on out, Dinner at Six developed a life of its own. A professor at the University of Connecticut discovered the book and began using it in her sociology class. The course expanded into a work-study program where a spokesperson from a local soup kitchen spoke to the class, and students signed on to do volunteer work at that Kitchen. This created a cross-pollination between institutions and a unique learning experience for all. Orders came in from Southern Connecticut State University, Colby and other well-known Colleges. Numerous High Schools also began incorporating Dinner at Six into their civic programs.
In 2004, the Dinner at Six project connected with a touring Broadway musical. Based on the lives of street musicians, the show was called Brooklyn, written by a formerly homeless man. Coordinating with the musical’s marketing team, books were shipped to soup kitchens in towns where performances were scheduled. Starting in Hartford, ending in San Jose, tables were set up in theater lobbies, and books sold. By the end of the tour, approximately $12,000 had been raised for the needy.
In 2008, Thomas and wife moved to Providence RI. Once again, Dinner at Six proved versatile. At marathon races and open air festivals, the folding table with stacks of books could be found. A year later, The Rochambeau Public Library, in conjunction with Whole Foods and Hope High School, used the book to raise $1000 for the Backpack Program - providing students with supplementary food to help feed their families. Since then, countless other outreach programs have participated in the program, including the YMCA, The Feinstein Foundation and the Rhode Island Food Bank.
As Helen neared the end of her life, the family began a plan to carry on her work. The Helen Hudson Foundation For Homeless America was established, funded solely by a family endowment and with a tiny board of directors. The Foundation is dedicated to the power of story and Hudson’s mission to help end homelessness.
In January of 2013, just before her 94th birthday, Ms Hudson passed away. By then, Dinner at Six was in its 6th printing and had raised tens of thousands of dollars for well over 100 soup kitchens and shelters across America. Despite the success of her book and her many years of hard work, Ms Hudson remained true to her own creed – declining to receive any form of remuneration for her creation.
Although other related projects are being pursued, the Foundation still bears witness to that unpublished manuscript from long ago that will keep on telling its story. In late 2017, The Helen Hudson Foundation partnered with the Rhode Island State Council of Churches. From their mission statement: "The Rhode Island Council of Churches, grounded in the Christian message and seeking to be followers of Jesus, gathers denominations, congregations, organizations, faith leaders, and individuals to serve as a catalyst for ecumenical, cultural, and interfaith dialogue; offer resources to and with each other; advocate for peace and social justice."