Staff Spotlight: Reggie Sterling

July 5, 2023

Reggie Sterling embodies Roof Above’s core values in his role to nourish the guests at Howard Levine Men’s Shelter. Those values include having a heart for the work, being solution-oriented, bringing our best, and valuing others. Reggie provides breakfast and lunch for shelter guests at Howard Levine Men’s Shelter as well as dinner for guests at Lucille Giles Men’s Shelter. 

Reggie spent the first thirty years of his professional life in biology. With master’s degrees from NC State and Colorado State, he ran a multimillion-dollar lab, where he spent 12 years in research and development to create a product for crabgrass control that is still in the marketplace. He knows a lot about discipline and perseverance.

Reggie’s mom began teaching him how to cook at age five. When asked about his switch from the lab to the kitchen, he says, “Cooking is science. Baking is a science. It’s very precise science.”

Reggie uses his analytical skills in the kitchen. He says, “I don’t like chaos. I’m not spontaneous. I’m pretty structured, so I run the kitchen that way.” He plans out menus days in advance, and he provides stability to shelter guests by serving meals at the same time every day. Guests know coffee will be out at seven and then breakfast service will begin. They can count on lunch starting at noon. Reggie says, “These guys have a lot of stuff going on in their lives, so I try to be that one constant. I like to give them stability as much as I can. That’s what I hope I bring to them every day.”

Reggie begins cooking at five, and he often prepares three meals at once. On any given day, he may serve close to 400 meals. He makes sure everybody’s got something to eat. A daily sports talk radio show keeps him on schedule. 

Reggie has to be solution-oriented. “Sometimes when I walk in the kitchen, it’s like an episode of Chopped. I come in on a Tuesday, expecting something to be there, and it’s not there. So I say I got this, this and this. Okay, I can make this. I use my analytical skills and figure it out.”

Guests help with dishes and putting the tables and chairs up. Reggie values others by encouraging them to be accountable for their living space. “You’ve got to be accountable for your environment and hold your brethren accountable too.”

He also tries to teach guests to be accountable for their actions, and he tells them, “Your first reaction is not always your best reaction.” 

He asks guests to create plans so they can build habits. “When they say, ‘I want to do this,’ I ask if they have a plan. It’s just a thought without a plan. I tell them to write it down. If your goal is to eat breakfast, check that off. You accomplished that. Get used to checking things off a list every day.”

Reggie makes a point to look everybody in the eye in the mornings and to ask how they’re doing. He says, “If I see you 100 times a day, I’m going to ask you how you’re doing. That’s for me to check in with them and let them know that somebody actually cares how they’re doing. Because these guys fluctuate. They may not be doing well in a moment, and I can tell. I can see something’s not right. They’ll tell me because I looked at them and I communicated with them.”

Reggie says, “I give them my best every day.” Guests’ palates vary so much, so he tries to pick universal meals. They love hot dogs. He says, “I’ll simmer chili for four hours on the stove and just keep stirring, stirring and stirring.” Guests notice the effort Reggie takes with their meals. He shares, “I fed someone spaghetti, bread and peas. He said he could tell that it wasn’t out of the box. I appreciate that they understand that I don’t just throw something together. I take my time.”

While living in Colorado, Reggie discovered he had a heart for serving people experiencing homelessness. Friends convinced him to join them in volunteering at the rescue mission, and he began to volunteer in their kitchen every week. To broaden his own development, he started a cookie ministry to have conversations with more people. He says, “I’d bake cookies and brownies and have lemonade. Or in the winter time, we’d have hot chocolate and cookies. It forced me to offer cookies to a stranger, so it got me talking to people. People shared their stories and it would just break your heart.”

Reggie finds ways to decompress so that he can continue showing up for the guests. “I bake and it’s just therapy.” He also volunteers to usher plays and in his nephew’s school. He goes to the gym and to church. He hangs out with his family.

When Reggie works with volunteers in the shelter kitchen, he tries to convey that they are not just serving a meal. He encourages volunteers to look guests in the eye. He invites them to “open up and look around you. See what’s going on.” He hopes “that inspires them to do something else in their community, not just here, because there’s so much more to be done.” 

When Reggie’s workday ends, he stops at tables and talks to guests. He says, “You take care of yourself tonight. Don’t get into any trouble. I want to see you tomorrow.” The guests tell Reggie to be safe too. They miss him when he’s away. When he returned from vacation, a guest “hugged me. He just grabbed me. And just wouldn’t let go.” Reggie is a steady presence for many guests at Howard Levine Men’s Shelter.

Reggie does more than just serve nourishing meals. He builds community. “We’re all here. These guys are just part of me. It’s a big old tapestry. A big old quilt and we’re all interwoven somehow, some way.”