February 24, 2010 9:36:00 AM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
There are any number of things teenage boys might be doing on a Saturday morning -- sleeping in, playing video games, shooting hoops. But on at least the third Saturday of every month, one group of young men is busy giving back to the community. That''s when members of the Sigma Beta Club of Starkville, along with Delta Upsilon Sigma and Theta Iota chapters of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc., volunteer at the Casserole Kitchen at First Presbyterian Church in Starkville.
Teaming up with Beth-el Missionary Baptist Church, the teens learn the value of selflessness from church members who have a bit more life experience. And, they become part of an extended network of caring people who make sure those in need of a hot, nourishing meal -- and a lift for the spirit -- can get it. The year-old Casserole Kitchen offers meals, at no charge, every Tuesday and Thursday from 6-6:30 p.m. and Saturdays between 11:30 a.m. and noon at the church located at 307 University Drive.
An early champion
Casserole Kitchen chairman and First Presbyterian Church member Paul Millsaps readily credits the program''s inception to the late Gery Cummings of Starkville, a church member who passed away last year after battling cancer.
"Gery had seen something similar when he lived in New Jersey and felt very strongly about it," Millsaps explained. "It was his inspiration, his hard work, determination, perseverance, his unwillingness to accept anything other than success."
Cummings went to other churches to introduce the Casserole Kitchen idea. First Presbyterian, with its newly renovated fellowship hall, could be the permanent host site, as well as rotate as a meal provider, if other churches joined in to adopt additional dates, creating a true community ministry.
"There was immediate interest from a lot of different churches," noted Millsaps.
One year after start-up, 15 churches in Starkville and Oktibbeha County participate. Like Beth-el Missionary Baptist''s volunteers, members prepare dishes, deliver them to the Casserole Kitchen site and serve guests on designated days.
"We''ve been involved from the beginning," said Mary Minton, Beth-el''s menu and volunteer coordinator every third Saturday. "Each church is responsible for their own meals. We really enjoy doing it. And the young gentlemen from the fraternity who come and help serve are just a great help."
Dederick Daugherty, fraternity chapter president, said, "Service is the keystone of all our activities. We strive to provide meaningful activities and service projects that can benefit our community." The international organization, founded in 1914, focuses on mentoring and grooming males ages 8-18 for leadership. "Our motto is ''Culture for service and service for humanity,''" Daugherty added.
For the soul
First Presbyterian member Anne McWhorter is her church''s coordinator for the 16 dates it is responsible for meals.
"(Our members) are just more than willing, any time," she said. "They''ll make a casserole, bring a salad, tea or whatever. There''s no problem."
While the number of guests served is averaging 22 per meal, attendance has been as high as 45. Numbers will increase as more learn of the program.
"We had two new people just last Saturday," said McWhorter. "A man who had been laid off from work said he''d just heard about the Casserole Kitchen and that it was just wonderful. And another lady told us she gets more hugs there than anywhere else. So, it''s not just food to fill your belly, but a place you can come and feel good and meet people."
The ecumenical nature of the food program yields benefits for its volunteers, as well. Churches of different denominations and races come together for a common purpose, getting to know each other, strengthening their bonds, Millsaps said.
He encourages more churches to become involved. "And we''ve asked them, even if you can''t send a cooking team up here, we just covet your prayers and support and your encouragement and awareness as we try to help those who need our help."
3,000 and counting
Casserole Kitchen will mark its one-year anniversary Thursday, March 18, with a meal at 6 p.m. for all the volunteers and regular guests.
Noting the program has just passed the milestone of serving, at a conservative estimate, 3,000 meals, Millsaps added, "We''re just going to have a night of fun and fellowship, where we all celebrate together." The late Gery Cummings and his wife, Bettie, will also be honored that evening.
Volunteers are eager to spread word of Starkville''s Casserole Kitchen to anyone in need of a hot, nutritious meal. For more information about the program or volunteering, contact Millsaps at 662-312-9229.
"Even if only one person is served," McWhorter said of the community ministry, "we''ve done what Christ has told us to do."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.