June 23, 2010 10:08:00 AM
Attendance is up at Columbus'' Loaves and Fishes Soup Kitchen due to, in part, the economy.
Leslie Peel, volunteer coordinator for Columbus'' First United Methodist Church, has been working with the kitchen since its beginning in 2008. According to her, nearly 100 more people are coming each serving day than were attending at the same time last year.
About 250 people in the Columbus area come to the soup kitchen for lunch every Monday and Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
To deal with the influx, Loaves and Fishes wants to open its doors at least one additional day a week. But because the organization is volunteer-led, it needs more groups to help. A free informational dinner will be held at the kitchen at 322 22nd St. N. Tuesday, June 29, at 6:30 p.m. for any group interested in learning more about the program and how they may help.
Good hearts needed
Clark Richardson, president of the Loaves and Fishes Board of Directors and pastor of Harvest Life Church said, "This occasion is open to all churches and businesses. People can help either financially or by volunteering."
Richardson is asking that two people from each interested organization attend the dinner, which is not only to ask the community for its involvement, but to introduce the area churches and businesses to the soup kitchen.
"A lot of people still don''t know who we are, where we are or what we do. You could call it an open house," he said."The main goal of this dinner is to raise awareness of the ministry and to let people know what we''re doing and how to become involved. We want to let them see firsthand how we''re meeting the hunger need in Columbus."
Richardson says he understands that some organizations that have a heart for the kitchen wouldn''t be able to take on all the responsibilities of taking a day once a month. We''d love to have local groups fundraise."
"A business, lawyers'' group, professional organization or office could provide a tax deductible donation, or serve by setting a menu and purchasing the food for a week," he noted.
Loaves and Fishes Executive Director Pam Rhea is in charge of coordinating volunteers. If a group were interested in only donating the food for a meal, she would arrange people to prepare and serve it.
Times of stress
"I see homeless every day, and they need food," said Jennifer Garrard, project coordinator for the Community Resource Connection, Columbus Police Dept.
Garrard says her department counts the number of people that are both homeless and at the risk of homelessness in Columbus.
"For April, we counted 119 homeless people and 178 people at the risk of homelessness. The meals (at Loaves and Fishes) are pretty stretched out, being on Monday and Friday, and those two are great, but adding one or two more feeding times would be such a blessing. We could refer more people down there and know that they''re getting a nutritious meal."
While he considers it a privilege to serve the homeless, Richardson does want people to know that Loaves and Fishes is for everybody who could use a little help.
"We''re trying to help people who may be suffering from the economy and could use a free lunch," he said. "It''s for everybody: for the salesperson or construction worker. We''re a ministry designed to help people in need. If your budget is tight this week, come on.
"I think there''s a stigma sometimes assigned to ... a soup kitchen," he said. "But one in three families are having trouble making ends meet right now. So why not come down and have a hot, delicious meal served with dignity and the love of Christian fellowship?"
Uniting for a cause
"We really desire to accept people as they are, where they are," said Richardson. "We don''t look at race, ethnicity or gender. Everything here is freely given, freely received. It is given in the name of the Lord."
A happy side effect of the Loaves and Fishes ministry has been a sense of camaraderie and understanding among the local churches.
"We''re bringing the churches together in unity," Richardson stated. "Good cross-sections of churches are discovering that they aren''t that different. There''s a unifying ministry here, where all kinds of churches are coming together to meet a need. We have Baptist churches, Missionary Churches, Episcopalian, non-denominational, Methodist, Catholic, just to name a few -- and several local businesses."
On Monday, the youth of First United Methodist Church of Starkville were serving alongside volunteers from the Columbus Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Church. Elder Yeck, of the Latter-day Saints Church, said he volunteers at Loaves and Fishes because, "It is just extending some of the blessings that I have been given through Christ. This isn''t just a soup kitchen. It makes me less self-centered and helps me focus on what is really important."
Richardson knows that everyone who comes to Loaves and Fishes, whether to eat, serve, or both, comes away with more than a full belly.
"The heart of the ministry is to give people more than a meal," he said. "We want to give them a place where they can go, sit down and interact with other people. No commitments or catches -- our goal is to offer a meal with the compassion of Christ."
How you can help
If interested in helping, Loaves and Fishes is always in need of donations of paper goods, such as paper plates, cups, plastic eating utensils and garbage bags. Also, large No. 4 cans of fruits and vegetables "are always appreciated."
All monetary donations are tax deductible.
For more information about the program or the June 29 informational dinner, contact Rhea at 662-386-2839, or Clark Richardson at 662-574-6749.