Longtime kitchen chief retires after decades helping Atlanta’s homeless

Clyde Corbin’s entire life and career have been about service.

The Florida native spent 22 years in the Army before retiring, and in the decades since has spent every day serving meals to people in Atlanta experiencing homelessness. Now, after 32 years, Corbin has retired again, this time from his role as the kitchen director at Crossroads Community Ministries.

“On May the first, I turned 75 years old and it’s just time to go,” Corbin said with a lighthearted chuckle.

Those who know Corbin say he is every bit as dedicated, hardworking and energetic today as he has always been. And when he departed his post at the end of May, those at Crossroads knew there would be no replacing the kind of steadfast commitment to serving others that Corbin is known for.

“Someone like him who’s done this for almost 33 years? You don’t replace that. You don’t just find somebody who can do what Clyde does. Because what he’s done, he’s done for so long and so well and it’s unique to him in so many ways,” the Rev. Tony Johns, Crossroads’ executive director, said.

By the time Johns took over at the helm of Crossroads about four years ago, Corbin was already a well-established fixture in the kitchen that has been named in his honor ⁠— Clyde’s Kitchen.

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“Clyde is just as honest and real a person you could ever meet,” Johns said. “He loves life, he loves people and it really comes across in everything he does. And he’s just the hardest working person I’ve ever met.”

Corbin is originally from Daytona Beach, Florida. When he finished high school and joined the Army he was given the choice of a desk job or being a cook ⁠— thinking he’d be bored sitting all day, Corbin found his way into the kitchen for the first time.

After more than two decades in the Army, including serving in the Vietnam War, Corbin retired and made his way to Atlanta to get a degree in business. After graduating from Saint Leo University, Corbin was working at a church in Dunwoody, but he was anxious to get back into food service.

At that time, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on Peachtree Street downtown was serving daily meals to those in need, but the church was looking for help running the kitchen. That’s where Corbin came in and where he’s been a constant presence ever since.

For the first 10 years on the job, Corbin continued to lead the efforts distributing daily meals from the church’s Parish Hall. Then, in the late ‘90s, Corbin and a group of dedicated volunteers helped form Crossroads as a standalone nonprofit, transitioning from the church to its current location at 420 Courtland Street NE.

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Corbin was there to serve Crossroads’ first meal on July 1, 1997. Shortly after, the kitchen was renamed in honor of its fearless leader. To date, Corbin has served nearly three million meals between his time at St. Luke’s and Crossroads ⁠— far surpassing his original goal of two million.

Day in and day out, Corbin served hundreds of hot meals. There was always soup, but he has also added casseroles and other dishes over the years. What motivated him to keep going all this time? It’s simple: “the population that I feed,” he said.

“Everyday someone would come and tell me ‘Clyde, I thank you’ or ‘I love you’ or ‘I appreciate what you’re doing for us,’” he said.

Like the rest of the world, the team at Crossroads had to adapt to the times — swapping sit-down hot meals for sack lunches served at the door of the kitchen. It’s another challenge that Corbin met with grace.

In the world before the coronavirus outbreak, Corbin’s typical days started at 6 a.m., when he arrived at Crossroads from his College Park home.

Along with two others, a cook and a dishwasher, Corbin and the kitchen team would begin prepping the day’s meal and wait for the volunteers to join them.

By 8:30 a.m., they would open the doors to the guests to come in for a warm cup of tea, a doughnut and a sense of community. But during the last few months of his tenure during the coronavirus pandemic, it was that aspect that Corbin missed.

“I have gotten to know them on a first-name basis and a lot of them give back to the program and they are so grateful for what we do. And that’s what keeps me going,” he said. While he was still able to pray with the folks he served, it was not the same sense of connection he was accustomed to.

For years, before serving the 10 a.m. daily meal, Corbin would address the crowd — around 200 people on a typical day.

“Clyde is able to speak to a room of 200 individuals who are going through incredible crises and dealing with all kinds of difficulties, and he’s able to really inspire and encourage them to take the next steps to exit homelessness or improve their situation. He just gives them hope to keep trying,” Johns said.

Critical to Corbin is his faith, which has shaped his life and provided perspective.

“I don’t get discouraged. As long as I am feeding people, I have to leave the rest to God,” Corbin told the AJC in 2016.

Over the years, Corbin’s service to people in Atlanta often extended beyond a warm meal. He has helped track down spare shoes and clothes for those in need and he has also passed on his knowledge of cooking — equipping people with the skills needed to get jobs.

“He’s put dozens, if not hundreds of people into the workforce in food service, because he chose to mentor them,” Johns said.

But it’s not only the people who come to Crossroads for a meal who Corbin has inspired, but also the longtime volunteers.

That’s part of Corbin’s legacy, Johns said: Not only his devotion to serving, but his ability to inspire that sense of volunteerism in others.

As he leaves behind a well-oiled machine, Corbin looks forward to traveling in retirement. While his plans are on hold for a little while until the coronavirus outbreak fully passes, Corbin plans to trek throughout the United States with his wife of 49 years, Marian, in the RV he purchased a few years back. He also plans to remain active in his church, Christian Missionary Baptist, where he is a deacon and continue to work outside in his yard.

Crossroads’ mission is to help the people they serve every step of the way from “door to door” — meaning from the moment they walk in the downtown building looking for a hot meal until the moment they walk into a home of their own.

For decades, being greeted by Corbin’s warm smile and generous spirit has been the first step in that journey for countless Atlantans. While he will no longer be there every day, his name will still be on the sign, along with the spirit of service that he has inspired.