When my friend Jenny Levison told me she was launching what she called a "Kindness Tour," in the middle of the pandemic last year, I thought she'd lost her mind.
Levison is a celebrity chef and the owner of five "Souper Jenny" restaurants in the Atlanta area. To say that she walks to the beat of her own drum is an understatement. Once she makes her mind up to do something, there really isn't any stopping her. And she is someone who is committed both in her life and her work to giving back, paying it forward, and helping those who need it -- even if that means renting an RV, covering it with peace stickers, and heading out on the road to give away free food for weeks at a time.
Levison tells me that the first "Souper Jenny Kindness Tour" was born out of a drive to help people having a rough time in 2020. Knowing how hard the restaurant industry was hit and all the people who were impacted by it, she launched a six-week tour from Atlanta to California last October.
"Everyone was struggling and frankly, I needed some hope as well. I called one of my besties and told her what I wanted to do. I wanted to hop in an RV, drive west and start to spread the word that hope and joy were still alive and kindness was the new cool."
She says the first trip was "life-changing."
"We walked the bridge in Selma, which I've never done before and I could feel the weight of our history. We brought a wagon filled with quarts of soup and we handed them out on the bridge. Someone told us about some low-income housing in the area. So, we headed over. This white Jewish girl showed up in their neighborhood and I was welcomed with open arms by the community," Levison says.
She and her friend, and co-captain on their wild adventure, Meg Gillentine Morris, stopped at local farms and bought out their produce. They'd use the produce to make soup and find ways to feed communities in need. They'd set up socially distant takeout tables and give away free soup in the RV parks where they stopped. They'd leave quarters for people to do their laundry in laundromats. They did a free grocery drive in Lake Charles, Louisiana, after a double hurricane hit the area. They fed firemen in Irvine, California, after the wildfires, visited a South Los Angeles cafe to help support their weekly free grocery drive, and fed the homeless in Skid Row.
"We not only wanted to touch those in need but also just random strangers that could use a smile that day."
Fast forward to today -- the Souper Jenny Kindness Tour 2.0 launched on April 26.
Levison and Morris made their first stop in Colliersville, Tennessee to meet a very special 10-year-old girl who started her own kindness journey this year. Levison says her name is Deontra and she shows up at her favorite places, like a hospital, fire station, Target, or a local restaurant, with snack bags and drinks and simply thanks people for their service. Levison supplemented her snack bags with quarts of soup.
While in Colliersville, Levison also handed out 50 quarts of Turkey Chili to bus drivers and anyone else they came across.
Levison has her own nonprofit called The Zadie Project dedicated to feeding Atlanta's hungry children, families, and seniors. The name honors her father, Jarvin Levison who is known as Zadie (Yiddish for grandfather).
"He is my inspiration for cooking and my motivation for getting involved in my community. He also gave me my very first soup recipe, My Dad's Turkey Chili. In our 18 year history, it is still our most popular soup."
Their next stop was Nashville, where they scrubbed and filled two community fridges, and showed up at the local Waffle House and other local fast-food restaurants to thank workers with free gift cards.
But Levison and Morris aren't just about giving away free food or money, they also take the time while hiking around and exploring wherever they're staying to just bring a smile to someone's face by complimenting them. "Kindness is easy. Kindness can be free," Levison says.
When the two kindness queens landed in Washington D.C. they treated 50 to 60 vaccine workers to an afternoon of pastries and coffee -- just because.
"People ask how I've funded this and let me tell you the answer -- I'm prepared to figure it out! I may end up using my paycheck to spread the kindness gospel, but humanity has been incredibly generous. People hear what we've been doing and they want to get involved. Sometimes, you don't have the time to do the deed and we can do it for you!"
There were people who have donated to make both of the Kindness Tours possible via a GoFundMe page, in addition to dozens in the Atlanta community and Levison's close family and friends, and a significant donor in Sara Blakely and The Spanx Foundation.
The tour ends May 15, if you're interested in following along you can just use @followingsouperjenny or @Meggillentine via Instagram or Meg Gillentine Morris or Jennifer Levison on Facebook.
Rebekah Sager is an award-winning journalist and author with over a decade of experience as a general assignment reporter and writer. She has contributed to the Washington Post, Hollywood Reporter, Playboy, VICE, and more. Her essay is featured in "Chicken Soup for the Soul: I'm Speaking Now: Black Women Share Their Truth in 101 Stories of Love, Courage, and Hope," available June 2021.
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