More than a hot meal
Over a span of 10 years, Community Meals of St. Helens has served more than 105,000 free meals to anyone who walks in the door. But putting a number to the personal connections, friendships, and lasting relationships established through the program is not so easy.
Community Meals has been serving free weekly meals since June 23, 2009. Last week, on Tuesday, June 25, the nonprofit program celebrated its 10-year anniversary.
The First Lutheran Church, where dinners are hosted, was colorfully decorated with red, white and blue balloons, and a raffle table for free prizes was boldly displayed at the front door.
Throughout the room, the tables were full with people of all ages from all walks of life — volunteers, friends, family and neighbors — causally chatting with one another, sharing a hug or excited hello, or chowing down on dinner.
History of the program
The Community Meals program was formed in the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession in 2009, a time when people were being hit hard financially and everyone was feeling pressure, Kathy Bauska, one of the main organizers of the program, recalled.
In February 2009, the Boise Inc. pulp and paper mill had curtailed operations, resulting in 300 workers being laid off. The impact to the community was great, she explained. But the negative economic effect would continue to spread.
"I mean, people were stressed after the 2008 economic depression, and 2009 was worse for everybody," she recalled.
A group of concerned residents from area churches, the Columbia Pacific Food Bank and other community members gathered to discuss how they could help.
"We couldn't figure out what to do, but at least we could feed people and help with their grocery bills, because people were losing their homes," Bauska said.
The idea began with a simple mission: provide a free dinner to anyone who needed it. Word spread and people started showing up.
"We saw just a huge influx of families start coming. Some would cry because they had to come to a free meal and they felt embarrassed, but overall everybody is nonjudgmental," Bauska said. "That's our rule — to love people and smile at people. Everyone in our community is our neighbor."
People from all over the community, including those who didn't identify as religious, recognized a sense of shared humanity and wanted to do what they could, Bauska said.
A decade later and the program is still going strong. On average, the program serves about 100 people at each meal.
The program is valued as more than just a hot plate of food for many. The sense of fellowship, belonging and connection has brought back guests year after year.
"There are people that have sat together for two nights a week for 10 years, and you can imagine the friendships they've made," Bauska said.
Bauska has seen people celebrate birthdays, mourn deaths and hold memorials for those who have passed on. Community Meals has built a true sense of a welcoming community, she explained.
Paul Long, an employee at Walmart in St. Helens and a freelance photographer, said he likes to come to Community Meals to get to know the people in his community. While he sees a lot of locals when he's working, visiting with those outside of the workplace allows him to connect on a more personal level.
"I see it as sharing time with friends and family and getting to fellowship with people I don't see on a regular basis," Long said.
Mercedes Castro, a St. Helens resident and personal support worker, said she found out about the program several years ago from a Community Meals regular. Over time, she found herself coming back and began inviting her own neighbors, family and friends. On Tuesday night, she sat with a group of women and children, casually chatting after they ate.
"It's definitely a social thing. We've made so many friends with people in the neighborhood," Castro said. "We may not know their situation at home, but this is a nice way for them to get a meal."
Over the years, Castro has built friendships, gotten to know her community and deepened her personal connections through the program.
"When I see people around town, we'll say, 'I'll see you tonight,' and then we're expecting to see each other later on in the day," Castro said. "If we don't, then we'll talk to each other and say, 'Oh what happened? I didn't see you.'"
Volunteer base keeps program running
The program is heavily reliant on volunteers, including members of church organizations, the St. Helens High School Boosters Club, Columbia Pacific Food Bank, Community Gardens and local businesses in Scappoose and St. Helens that provide food donations.
About 10 volunteers cook the meals, and 10 volunteer serving crews work on a rotating basis, Bauska explained, bringing the volunteer total to about 100. The volunteer base's commitment is one of the elements that has kept the program running efficiently.
"Everybody participates and works very hard. Our saying is, and I think it's an old African proverb, 'When spider webs unite they can tie up a lion,'" Bauska said. "And that's how we tackle Community Meals. We tackle the lion of hunger."
For many volunteers, the sense of community connection and service has made them loyal to the program.
Ardis Burger, who has worked with Community Meals since its beginning, has seen how the program has grown over the years and how many have come to rely on it.
"The doors open at 4 p.m. and there's people already who want to come in and have coffee and be here," she said.
Terri Green, another longtime volunteer, said she enjoys working with the program and observing the community benefit.
"I think that people get a warm meal and companionship and fellowship," Green said. "People have made friends here."
While the program has support from the community and has become a staple for many patrons, every organization has its ebbs and flows — and Community Meals is no exception.
Starting in July the program will be suspending its Thursday night meal service. Bauska explained that running a meal program for hundreds of people a week can be difficult, and she's hoping to hand over the responsibilities as she gets older.
Tuesday meals will still be served. And, with an infusion of volunteers and community support, the Thursday night service could return.
Bauska said Community Meals organizers are open to ideas and suggestions. They are also looking for someone willing to help coordinate and direct the Thursday night program to add it back into the rotation.
Anyone is welcome to attend the Community Meals program. Visitors do not need to provide any personal information and no donations are requested at the free dinners. Meals are served at 5:30 p.m. every Tuesday night at First Lutheran Church, 360 Wyeth St., St Helens.