Volunteers at the Brookings Presbyterian Church Thursday serve free, delicious, nutritionally-balanced meals to a variety of people in the community. Six local Community Kitchens served more than 18,500 meals in 2012.
It’s noon and people start lining up for a free meal inside the Brookings Presbyterian Church — one of five Community Kitchens in town.
Smiling, talkative church volunteers dish out a delicious, nutritionally-balanced meals and say hello as the lunchroom fills with 40-plus people. Three or four people eat alone, but many eat and talk in groups of three and four.
At one table a homeless, bearded man, dressed in a grungy rain jacket and stained jeans, shovels spoonfuls of a chicken casserole into his mouth.
A few chairs down, four senior women chat up a storm between bites of chocolate cake or cookies.
At another table, a woman encourages her ward, an adult man with a mental disability, to eat his vegetables.
Nearby, two men on their lunch break from work, eat and listen as a musician strums his guitar next to the dessert table.
“If it wasn’t for these people, I wouldn’t be eating today,” said one homeless man who wished to remain anonymous. “This is a good place. These are good people.”
This is not the stereotypical soup kitchen — a grim place where the downtrodden get their daily rations — but more like a community gathering place. It’s a place for good food, fellowship and where, if needed, an extra blanket or sleeping bag can be had.
“I well up with tears of joy; it’s a dream come true,” said Roger Gilbert, who helped start Community Kitchens in 2009. “What started out as an effort to help the homeless Vietnam veterans has truly become a community kitchen.”
Gilbert and co-founder Ernest Madden started Community Kitchens with two churches —The Seventh Day Adventist Church and St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church — in June, 2009.
“This really was Ernie’s brainchild; he deserves a lot of the credit,” Gilbert said. Although Ernie is no longer associated with the kitchens, the pair’s project has become a big success.
The numbers tell the story:
During 2010, volunteers at both churches served about 3,000 meals.
During 2012, volunteers at six different locations served more than 18,500 meals.
“We are blessed to have six active kitchens, and all are self- supporting,” Gilbert said.
A crew of eight to 15 volunteers at each church cook and serve the food, and clean up one day a week. Each kitchen is required to have certified food preparers.
In 2012, the kitchen at Azalea Middle School on Saturdays served 1,289 meals, at a cost of $1.43 per meal, while the kitchen at St. Timothy’s, on Tuesdays, served 4,688 meals at a cost of 77 cents per meal.
Gilbert said St. Timothy gets the largest attendance because the church also offers a free medical clinic right after the lunch.
Many people who eat at the kitchens donate $1 to $5 per meal.
“I’d rather spend my money here than at a restaurant,” said Joseph Williams, eating at the Presbyterian Church. “It cost less, the food is always great and it’s for a good cause.”
It’s donations like his that cover most of the cost of the meals at each kitchen. When it doesn’t, the congregations at the churches often cover the gap, Gilbert said.
Anyone can eat at the kitchens, and there is a “no proselytizing” policy.
“We didn’t want to alienate people or drive them away with preaching,” Gilbert said. “Ministering love is what we do. We often ask people if there is anything we can do to help.”
Bev Rigby, the kitchen manager at Seventh Day Adventist Church, agreed.
“We show that we care by doing it with actions rather than words,” she said.
In 2009, about a dozen people, mostly homeless, showed up at the Seventh Day Adventist kitchen. Today, it serves an average of 50 to 60 people every Monday – only a handful are truly homeless.
“It’s all about the fellowshipping, meeting new people and getting to know them” she said. “It really lifts your spirit. It’s good fun.”
In the Seventh Day Adventist kitchen on one particular Monday, volunteer Ira Tozer greeted visitors with a hearty handshake and big smile.
“I love it! I’m still doing this because it works,” Tozer said. “You get to meet a lot of people and help each other.”
At the Brookings Presbyterian Church on a Thursday, kitchen managers Carol and West King kept the food flowing, with the help of six or seven other volunteers.
“The church accepted this as a mission project,” West explained.
When the church started it’s kitchen in 2011, it served about 20 people. Today it serves an average of 60 people each week.
When volunteers are serving food, they often mingle with people, asking if anyone needs help. Those with serious needs are referred to the pastor for assistance, West said.
In some cases, with the help outside nonprofit groups, volunteers have been able to obtain items such as glasses and hearing aids for those lacking the money, Gilbert said.
Volunteers have also used their network of friends and co-workers to find job leads for those seeking employment.
“There was a husband and wife who were living in an RV with a leaking roof. By the end of the week a group of volunteers fixed it for them,” Gilbert said.
The kitchen at Azalea Middle School on Saturdays, sponsored by the Rotary Club of Brookings-Harbor, was formed specifically to serve children who often came to school on Mondays, saying they didn’t eat during the weekend.
“The school district approached us, wanting to know if we could establish a kitchen at the school, and we were more than happy to help,” Gilbert said.
Four or five Azalea Middle School students volunteer at the kitchen each Saturday and receive school credit, he said.
Contrary to what most people might think, he said, the majority of those who patronize the soup kitchens are not the traditional homeless.
“Homeless people make up about 20 percent who use the kitchen,” he said.
The largest group by far are senior citizens.
“For the seniors who can’t afford to eat at a restaurant, it’s a chance to have a quality gourmet meal and socialize,” Gilbert said.
The next largest group of people consist of those who are unemployed or underemployed and can’t afford to pay rent and buy food.
That’s the case for Sheila Burns, who seeks odd jobs while living in a camper at various local campgrounds.
“This is often my only meal of the day,” she said while eating at Monday’s kitchen. “I’m doing what I can to survive, and what these people are doing really helps.”
Gilbert said the kitchens always serve a substantial, well-balanced hot meal for lunch – not just soup. The meals include a meat or vegetarian main dish, vegetables, bread, salad, dessert and a beverage.
“That way, if they only get to eat one meal a day, they could make it on the meal we serve,” he said.
Community Kitchens currently operate six days a week — from noon to 1 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Gilbert’s dream is to have enough churches to have a kitchen open every day.
“I’d love to see one open on Sunday, and also during the evenings,” he said.
The project is always in need of volunteers, donations of cash and food, he said.
For more information, call Gilbert at 541-469-5467.