Guests find friendship and community while receiving a hot, healthy meal
During a time of year that is filled for many with an abundance of food and family time, it is important to remember that not everyone has a meal to eat or a home where they can celebrate. Many in the Rochester community will not have the luxury of participating in a traditional holiday feast this year.
According to the 2012 report “Families and Youth Without Stable Housing in Rochester: A Needs Assessment,” there are an estimated 200 to 300 families in Rochester who are homeless and an additional 60 to 100 independent youth under age 25 who are either homeless or at imminent risk of becoming homeless. Rochester is host to many organizations that provide support services to those in need, including access to housing, education, food and medical care. Saturday Noon Meals, a ministry of Christ United Methodist Church, is a unique, volunteer-run program that provides not just a free meal every Saturday, but also a place of safety, warmth and community.
A VISION OF COMMUNITY
Spearheaded by the efforts of Linda Curtis and Marie Alexander, Saturday Noon Meals was established in 1994 by a small group of church members with the vision of providing those in need with a safe place to gather and share not only a meal, but also friendship and camaraderie. Marie has since passed, but Linda continues to lead the program with the same love and devotion that sparked her original interest. “Brokenness comes from being separated or isolated from society,” Linda says. “The opportunity to visit with persons from all kinds of situations is a growing experience in love and trust for both the volunteers and guests. Each of our guests is special in their own way.”
THE LITTLE THINGS
The scene at Saturday Noon Meals is different from many other meal programs. Round tables with seating for eight are arranged throughout the room, each with a centerpiece of fresh flowers provided by Hy-Vee South. Guests arrive early to converse with old friends, meet new ones and share their experiences from the past week. While kitchen volunteers put the finishing touches on the meal, those gathered are invited to enjoy simple appetizers while they socialize. “It’s the little things,” explains Nathan Lauer, who attends weekly with his partner, Tia Zecchino, and their family. “They bring the food out to you; you don’t have to go get it. Everybody gets their own plate. It’s a real plate with real silverware, not a tray with a spork. It’s little, tiny things like that that make a big difference.” At Saturday Noon Meals, Linda and her volunteers do lots of little things to help their guests feel at home. Placemats and flowers are set out on the tables when guests arrive. Appetizers are provided. Volunteers bring a plate of food to each guest. During the holidays, guests receive take-home snack bags. There are special gift bags prepared each month to celebrate birthdays. Those most in need will sometimes receive care packages to take with them. All these things, along with the warm welcome offered by the volunteers, transform this regular meal into a gathering of friends. A PLACE TO CALL HOME The atmosphere found at Christ United Methodist Church at noon on Saturdays is that of a gathering of old friends and neighbors. Many clearly consider this weekly gathering to be home, where everyone is treated as family and no one is turned away. “There’s a lot of support and outreach that happens amongst [the guests],” explains volunteer Sue Knutson. “They network, and they support each other during the week. They ask each other, ‘How did your week go? What’s going on? How’s this? How’s that?’” For the past 11 years, Kenny Ferris has been a regular guest at Saturday Noon Meals. He considers it home. “Kenny is the unofficial ‘papa’ or ‘uncle’ or whatever to everybody in that room,” explains Sue. Kenny was homeless for eight years, staying in a variety of places, including tents and his van. In the last three years, his circumstances have improved. These days, Kenny comes to the meal bearing fresh produce from the local farmers’ market or a small gift for someone he’s come to know. “I go every Saturday and bribe all these ladies,” Kenny jokes. “They’re nice people—the ladies who work here. I’ve known most of them over the years. This really is a wonderful place…to congregate and meet people from all walks of life.”
EVERYONE IS WELCOME
Saturday Noon Meals is not only for those who are homeless. The program also serves people who are unemployed or financially struggling. For some, the noon meal will be the only one they have; for others, it will simply bridge the gap that their hard-earned paychecks can’t cover. “Our guests are no different than you and I,” explains Linda. “They’re people. Many of them never got a good start in life. Some of them are the working poor that can’t make ends meet on their part-time, minimum wage jobs, and they’re hungry. Some have been chemically dependent and are trying to get on the road to make new friends, to be contributing members of society. Some of them have mental and/or physically handicapping conditions, which make it difficult for them to function in society. Here, we accept everyone with dignity and respect, and we expect that dignity and respect in return.” “It’s a community,” explains Grace King, who attends weekly with her mother, Ruth. “For me, it’s time to get away from home life…time to visit with my mom. I only see her every Saturday, and this is our time together.” This community is fostered by the people—those who attend and those who serve. There is a mutual respect and love that is given and received among the guests and volunteers. Linda makes sure that everyone feels welcome. New guests are greeted with a smile, while old friends are given a warm hug and heartfelt, “Welcome back.” “I care about Linda a great deal,” Tia states. “She’s a really wonderful lady. She cares. Linda cares.”
HOW IT WORKS
The number of guests served each Saturday ranges from 70 to 100, depending on the season, and each meal is completely organized and prepared by a staff of volunteers. The program has no paid staff and relies entirely on donations from groups or individuals, as well as food from Channel One Regional Food Bank and Food Shelf. “The church supports us with the place, the utilities and a custodial staff,” states Linda. “[As part of] a Channel One agency, we pay 18 cents per pound [of food] as a shared maintenance fee. It would be much higher than that if it were not for the United Way [and] individual and group donations to Channel One. We could not exist without Channel One.” Linda does not actively solicit for volunteers, yet she seldom finds herself in need. “It seems like whenever there isn’t a volunteer group showing up, I send up a prayer on a wing, and people show up,” Linda says. “I can’t explain it; it just happens.” For more information or to sign up to volunteer at Saturday Noon Meals, a message can be left for Linda Curtis at Christ United Methodist Church by calling 289-4019.
Catherine H. Armstrong is a full-time mom and community volunteer. She is a 1992 graduate of the University of Oklahoma where she received her B.A. in Journalism/News Communications.