By Charles Winokoor
Taunton Gazette Staff Reporter
TAUNTON – They were scrub-a-dub-dubbing Friday morning on the grounds of Saint Thomas Episcopal Church.
“Everyone deserves to take a shower and put on clean socks, no matter what they’ve done,” said Peter Kelleher, also known as Soupman, as he stood near his three-stall, portable shower unit on wheels.
Kelleher, 58, has been on a goodwill tour assisting homeless people, or anyone else on the streets in need of a helping hand, since September 2016 when his drug-addicted son Travis died of an overdose in Bangor, Maine.
A few months later, Kelleher, who lives in Bridgewater, began using an old Toyota pickup truck to deliver gallons of his homemade soup — stocked with ground beef, carrots, celery, onions and macaroni — to the homeless and street people in Brockton.
“I had to do something,” Kelleher said, describing how his son’s death motivated him to help other people in the throes of addiction or homelessness.
Kelleher said he adopted his popular moniker six weeks into his altruistic endeavor when a Brockton woman on the street announced: “Hey, the soup man’s here!”
Since then, Kelleher has handed out hundreds of backpacks full of day-to-day supplies and clothing, both donated and bought.
He also eventually created a nonprofit group called Soupman Corp., which opened the floodgates for sponsorships and corporate donations.
Kelleher says his portable shower unit, which he pulls with a Ford F150 pickup truck, cost nearly $50,000, including a $4,500 generator donated by Honda Motor Co.
He said he was inspired to purchase a portable shower vehicle one day a year and a half ago in Brockton, as he and his lawyer were standing downwind from a group of homeless people enjoying his soup.
“I said, ‘These people stink — we’ve got to do something about it,’” Kelleher said, as he pet his Australian Shepherd service dog Koji.
Friday’s visit to Saint Thomas Episcopal Church marked the first time he’s brought his portable shower vehicle to the Silver City.
The weather was hot and muggy, and more than 30 men and women, he said, took advantage of his offer to disrobe in privacy, take all the time they needed to shower and leave with a free towel and clothes.
“I enjoyed it. I feel better,” said Michael Alifonso, 37, who said he’s not living on the street, but for now is staying at a friend’s apartment where the water heater recently broke.
“The people are extraordinarily grateful,” said Mitch Zucker, a board member of Kelleher’s nonprofit group and an employee of Nerds to Go in Taunton — which serves as one of about 10 drop-off points in the region for donated clothes and sneakers.
Zucker could be seen Friday with a hand pump and container full of a water-and-bleach solution spraying and sanitizing each shower stall after it was used.
One shower-unit entrance has an attached metal ramp so as to be handicapped-accessible.
All three units have a changing area with a clothes hanger. The showers, meanwhile, are stocked with liquid soap, shampoo and conditioner.
In addition to the mobile unit and pickup truck, Kelleher also uses a small school bus that has been converted into a clothing-and-food pantry vehicle.
Both that and a larger school bus were previously donated to the Soupman by the owner of Lucini Transportation of Bridgewater.
Kelleher said his stop-off in Taunton was made possible by an invitation extended by Maribeth Ferreira, director of Our Daily Bread Food and Resource Center located in the church.
And although it was only the fourth time he’s used the showers — since he took delivery of the mobile unit made by Illinois-based Comforts of Home Services Inc. — Kelleher says he’s been getting requests from other cities to pay a visit this summer.
Friday’s visit was sponsored by First Citizens’ Federal Credit Union, whose business development officer Tom Talbot says helped organize the event.
Talbot says he’s been volunteering at the church, along with Raynham branch manager Aleece Silva, who sits on the board of Our Daily Bread, by teaching a basic financial literacy class.
He stressed that Kelleher’s visit was intended to bring attention to Our Daily Bread Food and Resource Center — which besides a weekday soup kitchen also includes a “resource center” that, among other things, features free computer and self-esteem classes.
Kelleher said his shower on wheels can be hooked up either to a fire hose or to a water tap by means of garden hose.
He says it’s equipped with a 250-gallon fresh-water holding tank and a 300-gallon tank for “grey water” — dirty, although not contaminated, water collected from the showers, which is then emptied into a municipal drain.
“It’s like washing a car,” he said.
Kelleher’s mobile unit is decorated with a number of names of donors, all of whom have donated money to the cause, including a $35,000 donation made by the estate of Russell E. Pierce.
He also said Ocean State Job Lot has been a major donor and backer of his endeavors.
Kelleher says his goal, with the help of his board, is to establish a Soupman charitable foundation.
He also urged everyone with a spare pair of sneakers sitting in their closet to donate them.
Kelleher said he keeps a close eye on everyone who picks out free clothing and sneakers from his tables set up near the mobile showers.
Unfortunately, he said, there are people who try to take advantage of his good intentions.
“Last week, a guy wearing new sneakers drove up in a $40,000 beamer (BMW) and thought he could take some (used) sneakers,” Kelleher said. “I don’t put up with that. It’s not why I’m here.”
The now-retired Maine native said the memory of his son continues to inspire and drive him.
“That such a beautiful thing could come from such a tragedy,” Kelleher said. “My son is pulling me to work. He’s having the last laugh. It’s my passion, my pride.”
Kelleher also has a Facebook page for his nonprofit group called Support The Soupman Corp.