BIDDEFORD — Peter Kelleher knew the bad news about his son, Travis, was coming, despite all the times he had reached out to help, tried to steer him in the right direction.
“I got that call I knew I was going to get. I was still heartbroken,” said Kelleher, standing outside the Biddeford Police Department on Monday in front of a former school bus – Travis’ Bus – that he now uses to distribute supplies to the homeless.
Kelleher received “that call” on Sept. 2, 2016. His 33-year-old son had died of an opioid overdose in Bangor.
Maine and much of the nation is in the grip of an opioid crisis, with 418 drug overdose deaths in 2017 and a projected 376 deaths in 2018.
Peter Kelleher, also known as “The Soupman,” is on a weeklong tour of Maine to help the homeless, including stops in Biddeford, Portland, Newport, Augusta and Bangor. The bus is packed with more than 1,500 backpacks that contain winter clothes and toiletries for the homeless. Travis was homeless when he died, Kelleher said.
For eight or nine months after Travis died, Kelleher was despondent, “crying all the time” and “thinking I was a bad father.” He said he blamed himself because he and his son’s mother never married and had split up after Travis was born.
“He came from a broken home,” said Kelleher, a Millinocket native who lives in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. “Travis was a good kid. He liked people. He was charming, and he would do anything for anybody. But the demon got him.”
He said his son had boyhood hobbies, like Boy Scouts and karate, but by the time Travis was an adult and heavily into substance use, his hobbies had evaporated. There were glimmers of hope – occasional jobs at restaurants or roofing – but Kelleher said his son’s drug use always returned.
After several months of mourning, Kelleher said he needed to channel his sadness into something productive.
So one day in 2017 he decided to take one step to help society, and “The Soupman” was born.
“It all started out with 32 quarts of hamburg soup,” Kelleher said.
Kelleher, 59, fed the soup to the homeless in Brockton, Massachusetts, and that act of kindness mushroomed into finding more ways to help the homeless. He founded Support the Soupman, a nonprofit organization that now, in addition to soup and bagged lunches, collects and distributes backpacks, toiletries and winter clothing for the homeless, and raises money for portable showers for homeless shelters.
Kelleher estimates that the Soupman charity has received $125,000 in cash donations, and an additional $125,000 in supplies.
On Monday, he handed a few backpacks filled with supplies to the Biddeford police and then headed to the Seeds of Hope Neighborhood Center, which has day programs and distributes supplies to the homeless, and dropped off another 50 backpacks.
Rev. Shirley Bowen, Seeds of Hope executive director, said from what she’s seen, substance use and mental illness are major contributing factors to homelessness. She said Kelleher should be credited with honoring his son’s memory by helping others.
“God bless him, because even though he went through a tragedy, he’s making a difference,” Bowen said.
She said any assistance provided to the homeless – even something as simple as giving them some dignity by having access to toiletries – could help get people into the treatment they need.
“We need to do all that we can to help,” Bowen said.
Kelleher said he’s not stopping what he now considers a lifetime quest to help the homeless.
“I’ll do this until the day I die,” he said.
Donations to Kelleher’s nonprofit can be made at: supportthesoupman.org
Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:
Peter Kelleher is hosting a “backpack night” to fill backpacks with toiletries and winter gear for the homeless Thursday, Feb. 7 in Middleboro. Volunteers are welcome.
BRIDGEWATER — Peter Kelleher needs help filling almost 2,000 backpacks for the homeless.
Known to many as “The Soupman,” Kelleher leads a collective effort to hand out backpacks – filled with toiletries, gloves, hats and warm socks – to those in need around Brockton.
On Monday, he’s bringing that effort up north to Maine.
Driving a bright red school bus, donated by Lucini Transportation of Bridgewater and converted into a mobile food pantry and closet with the help of other area businesses, Kelleher will make his way around Maine to distribute about 1,000 backpacks and raise funds.
The first stop is Biddeford, he said, followed by Portland, Augusta, Newport, Bangor and Lincoln. The trip will conclude in his hometown, Millinocket, after which he’ll head back home.
Bangor just may be the toughest spot for him – Kelleher’s son, Travis, died at age 33 in the city after overdosing in 2016.
Travis was the catalyst for his full-time dedication to help those suffering from addiction and homelessness, Kelleher has said.
The effort started off small – going around Brockton starting in 2017 to hand out soup to the homeless, which is how he acquired his moniker.
Since then, his impact on the community has exploded. He established his own nonprofit “Support the Soupman,” started handing out backpacks alongside soup, was named “Citizen of the Year” by the Rotary Club of the Bridgewaters, acquired and converted the donated school bus and is in the process of developing a for-profit soup line.
After a months-long effort, he reached a $50,000 fundraising goal in November to purchase a mobile shower unit to be stationed in Brockton, he said. The shower unit will be delivered and unveiled toward the end of the month. During his Maine trip, he plans to raise money for a second shower unit to be stationed in Bangor, for which he has already raised a little more than $8,500.
While in Maine, he hopes to not only raise awareness for his organization, but about the reality surrounding addiction and homelessness in general.
“It’s getting worse and worse,” he said. “I just want to help people. There’s no real reason someone should be out there (in the streets).”
Always looking ahead, Kelleher already has plans for more shower units (“The next shower will go into Manchester, N.H.,” he said.)
For now, he’s tasked with filling the backpacks for Maine. Kelleher has hosted “backpack nights,” as he dubs it, to gather volunteers to stuff the backpacks.
The one he’s hosting tonight in Middleboro, though, will be the biggest one yet, he said.
“We’ve been filling 100 here and 100 there,” he said. “But when we have a backpack night, it just gets more people involved. And there are a lot of backpacks to fill.”′
The event will be hosted at the Mitchell Memorial Club (29 Elm St.) in Middleboro from 7 to 9 p.m. Kelleher and his team of supporters expect a crowd of about 50 to 100 volunteers, he said. Those who want to get involved are welcome to just show up, or reach out ahead of time via their Facebook page (“Support the Soupman”) or their website supportthesoupman.org.
“We’re doing nothing but huge, big things,” he said, “and it’s just going to grow and grow and grow.”
Staff writer Corlyn Voorhees can be reached at email@example.com
By Montana Samuels / @pennedbymontana
NEW BEDFORD — It’s Saturday at about 10:30 a.m.
You’ve finished your coffee, put on your pants, and grabbed the essentials. Before walking out the door, you check the weather on your cell phone. The dull light on your face highlights the grimace:
For most, this is enough to spend a Saturday indoors. Bridgewater’s Peter Kelleher is not most people.
On Saturday, Kelleher spent his afternoon on the streets of New Bedford, offering boots, coats, gloves, blankets and food to the city’s homeless.
There were even coloring books and a teddy bear in case any children came to the bus, something Kelleher said doesn’t happen often, but he prepares for anyway.
He pulled into a parking space on Purchase Street shortly before 12:30 p.m. and soon after people began gravitating toward the big red school bus that Kelleher drives all over New England.
“Excuse me, where do all the homeless hang?” asked Kelleher, in his characteristic brashness, of a man who had told him that he was “kind of homeless.”
The man said if the bus stayed on Purchase Street people would come, so that’s where he parked it.
Some filled whole boxes with warm weather clothes and their backpacks. Others simply took a sandwich and a hot chocolate.
This certainly wasn’t Kelleher’s first bus trip.
Support the Soupman, the non-profit that supports these endeavors, has been operating since October of 2017, Kelleher estimates.
He started the organization, in large part, because of what he witnessed his son Travis go through prior to his death of a drug overdose in 2016.
What Kelleher hopes to get across now, through his organization, is that none of us are all that different than the people he is helping.
Caroline Desroche is one of the people who works with Kelleher when he does these bus trips, and said that she discovered the program through social media.
As Desroche and company made sure people got clothes and food, Kelleher listened as people shared their stories.
For Brian Leandre of New Bedford, his story starts with a divorce, and then an eviction.
As child support payments mounted, he chose to leave a $1,400 a month program and begin renting in the city in order to make all of his necessary payments. When a roommate didn’t pay rent, however, Leandre was evicted from his home and has now been homeless for what he said is about one year.
The homeless that gathered around the bus on Saturday said their list of problems don’t stop at simply not having a roof over their head. Some said day to day difficulties include a rocky relationship with the city’s police force.
For Kelleher, his focus isn’t yet on answering those big questions of how cities can tackle both homelessness and illegal substances, but what he can over people is a bit of hope, some hot chocolate, and a listening ear.
“We all have a story, some are just worse than others,” said Kelleher.
By Tom Relihan
Peter Kelleher spends many Saturdays feeding soup to the region’s homeless population and often brings them items like socks and winter clothing.
BRIDGEWATER – Tracey Hallahan saw the page go up on her Facebook feed: Support the Soup Man.
Bridgewater resident Peter Kelleher, famous for serving hot, homemade soup to the area’s homeless population on Saturdays, was seeking socks and winter clothing to distribute to those he served after noticing many of them were ill-equipped for the coming winter.
Her friend, Michael Goodman, had taken up the cause, too, starting the page. And it netted hundreds more articles of winter clothing than anyone involved had expected. Hallahan wanted to find some way to help, and she recognized it as a teaching moment for her 13-year-old twin niece and nephew. So, she gathered them up and went to the Easton Knights of Columbus on Dec. 15, prepared to help pack up the donations.
That’s when the cars and trucks began pulling up, loaded with hats, gloves, mittens, socks and other pieces of clothing. Together with about 80 other volunteers, Hallahan and the twins sorted, packed and reloaded the items for distribution.