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Manna opens resource and navigation center in Durango

Facility will support nonprofit’s expansion of services and its new model of empowerment
Marissa Hunt, right, resource center manager, at Manna soup kitchen, and Ann Morse, left, executive director of Manna, talk with La Plata County commissioners Matt Salka and Marsha Porter-Norton on Wednesday during a tour of the remodeled building. Manna’s resource center has a new food market (pictured) that gives those in need of food assistance greater choice. In doing so, Manna hopes to empower its clients and remove stigma surrounding food insecurity. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

For decades, Manna has fed the Durango and La Plata County communities, but until now the organization has lacked a space where it could fully integrate both its food service and social services.

That will change with the opening of Manna’s new community kitchen and resource center.

La Plata County commissioners and city of Durango staff got a first look at Manna’s resource center during a Wednesday tour. The facility, which opened for food service earlier this week, will serve as a hub for those struggling with food insecurity and the unhoused community. It will offer the nonprofit’s traditional meals, but also a food market, showers and bathrooms, offices for support services, computers, a washer and dryer, and a takeout window.

The development of a resource center comes at a time when Manna is expanding its services rapidly to tackle food insecurity and homelessness in the area. The center will bolster the group’s efforts while also serving as a new model of empowerment for those it serves.

“This resource center will focus on food insecurity, employment and housing because it takes all those different factors to help somebody take the next steps to self-sufficiency,” Ann Morse, executive director of Manna, told commissioners and city staff.

All three La Plata County commissioners and Kevin Hall, managing director of community development for the city of Durango, joined Morse and Manna staff on the tour as the resource center prepares to fully open on Tuesday.

A new lobby Manna added during the remodel. When visitors first enter the resource center through the lobby, they will be greeted by Manna staff who can check them in and guide them to the services or facilities they need. Those who visit Manna will now take a needs assessment and be routed through Manna’s expanded team of case managers before they access the food market or facilities in an effort to expand supportive services. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The county and the city applauded the new facility and the work of Manna staff to bring the project to fruition. Both governments have contributed money through their joint sales-tax fund that will go toward the operational costs of the resource center.

“It feels like we’ve been talking about these issues (of homelessness and food insecurity) for a long time, really since 2015 when it heated up in Durango and surrounding areas,” said Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton. “The progress is really incredible. These things weren’t here seven years ago, so congratulations to everybody making it happen.”

Hall echoed Porter-Norton.

“It’s super important to celebrate all of these successes,” Hall said. “We stand in here and I’m just blown away by the amazing changes and this evolution.”

Manna’s resource center is a reimagining of the nonprofit’s former space on the city’s social services campus in west Durango.

The large and open space where community members used to gather for meals has been redesigned and compartmentalized by architect Carolyn Hunter and Denver-based Shopworks Architecture to better meet the needs of those Manna serves.

At its entrance, the resource center has a reception desk and lobby where community members can check in and Manna staff can guide them to the services or facilities they need.

Offices for case managers and support staff from partners like Axis Health System line the hallways so that those visiting Manna can access services at the same time they are getting food.

James Mitchell Lipska, community kitchen chef at Manna soup kitchen, prepares takeout meals Thursday at Manna’s remodeled resource center. The community kitchen now has a takeout window where visitors can order food in reusable containers to go. During the pandemic, Seanan Culloty, Manna’s executive chef, transitioned to serving takeout meals as those seeking support increased. Manna went from preparing 80 to 100 meals per day to about 600 per day. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

A children’s play area offers space for entertainment, while a row of desks and computers allow visitors to access the digital resources. Next to a washer and dryer, the bathrooms and showers are now separate and disability accessible with space for visitors to hang their clothes.

The food market is centrally located with shelves of food, cereal dispensers, refrigerators and refrigerated produce shelves. Community members will be able to take food from the market to make their own meals.

Manna’s remodeled community kitchen will continue to be the central point for prepared meals, though Executive Chef Seanan Culloty hopes to begin preparing more ready-to-go foods.

One change to the community kitchen is a takeout window that allows anyone to carry out prepared meals in reusable containers that can then be brought back to Manna and cleaned. During the pandemic, Culloty and Manna transitioned to serving takeout meals as those seeking support increased. Manna went from preparing 80 to 100 meals per day to about 600 per day.

Between those who visit Manna, Purple Cliffs and volunteers who transport meals to food insecure areas, Manna’s community kitchen now serves about 300 people per day, Culloty said.

Manna’s resource center took six months to build and has been in serious development since 2020, Morse said.

The city of Durango and La Plata County’s Strategic Plan on Homelessness adopted in 2020 identified a central resource center as a concrete step the area could take to address homelessness.

As Manna and its board of directors learned more, they incorporated the transformation of the soup kitchen into a resource center.

“We learned that that’s what the community really wanted,” Morse said in an interview.

The resource center is in some ways a manifestation of a new vision for Manna. In recent years, the nonprofit has expanded rapidly and shifted its work to integrate more services.

A children’s play area and computer stations allow community members to entertain their children and access online resources. Offices for case managers and support staff from partners like Axis Health System also line the hallways of the remodeled building. Manna’s new resource center bolsters supportive services that will become more intertwined with the food-assistance community members receive. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“(Manna’s) model is moving away from more of like a day shelter that serves food to a resource center,” Culloty said.

Those who visit Manna will now take a needs assessment and be routed through Manna’s expanded team of case managers before they access the food market or facilities. Case managers can then assist those visitors and direct them to employment or housing resources through Manna’s partners like Housing Solutions for the Southwest or Axis Health System.

A new software program the resource center has been using since February will also provide Manna with data the nonprofit can use to tailor its services to those it helps.

“The goal with this whole program changing and the remodel was to encourage people when they’re here at Manna to be using services,” Culloty said. “If you're here at Manna, you're making steps forward.”

Much of Manna’s work is now directed toward access and the empowerment of those it serves, which is reflected in the resource center.

Instead of a set time for community members to access meals, the kitchen will now be open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Community members can walk up to the carryout window and place their orders from the options on a menu board.

Prepared meals will also be available outside in a community refrigerator so families can access food if work or child care limits their chances of visiting the kitchen while it’s open.

Manna is still refining its policies for how the food market will work, but the move allowing community members to choose their own food is meant to provide them dignity and remove barriers for those concerned about the stigma of food insecurity, said Marissa Hunt, Manna’s resource center manager.

“For many years with food banks (and) soup kitchens, it was a lot of putting food in a box or on a plate and handing it to someone with little choice involved,” Hunt said. “That doesn’t always feel like the most dignified process. It doesn’t take into consideration what you want.”

Those who visit the food market can feel empowered to not only address their own dietary needs, but also their cultural needs through their food selection.

Manna added two all-gender showers to its resource center during the six-month remodel. “This resource center will focus on food insecurity, employment and housing because it takes all those different factors to help somebody take the next steps to self-sufficiency,” said Ann Morse, executive director of Manna. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“We want to uphold dignity through choice, by giving people the agency to choose what’s best for them,” Hunt said. “... If we want to decrease stigma and really make sure that we’re serving a whole spectrum of a population, people deserve the right to choose the food they want to eat.”

Though the community kitchen has been open since Monday, Manna’s resource center and its services will officially open Tuesday. Since Manna first started collecting data in February, staff members have already logged 100 households who have sought assistance, Morse said.

When the resource center opens, Manna’s services will be available at the same time the kitchen is open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Community members can also access services from 3 to 7 p.m. Wednesday.

With its opening, Morse, Culloty and Hunt expressed gratitude and excitement that the Durango and La Plata County communities helped bring the resource center to fruition to assist those in need.

“We just want to offer the tools, support and the guidance to help people get where they want to be,” Hunt said.

ahannon@durangoherald.com

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