by Bob Kalk
“Good morning! Welcome to our table today.” With this heartfelt greeting, Larry McLaughlin opens the door of the Leicester Community Center, which is filled with the aroma of freshly prepared hot food. The 25 mostly senior volunteers serve the noontime meal with smiles, and the accompanying conversations also nourish the soul.
“I enjoy it,” says Norma Maney, who can usually be found at her post behind the steam table. “For many people, this is about the only social activity they have during the week.”
And fellow volunteer Marie Whitener tears up as she describes the profound hunger, both physical and emotional, within this community. “There’s a huge need — lots of live-alones. And unless they go to church, this is their best social experience.”
Food and fellowship
From humble beginnings, the Leicester Community Welcome Table has grown steadily. Supported by local churches and the Asheville-based MANNA FoodBank, the project served almost 10,000 meals last year, delivered about 80 meals a week to shut-ins and generated more than 4,500 hours of volunteer labor.
Back in 2008, many people were facing serious economic challenges. Census data for 2009 showed the largest number of poor people in the 51 years the bureau had been tracking poverty. Some were forced to choose between buying food or medication; others found it hard to provide balanced meals for their families.
But from the circuit riders who once traversed these hills to the weekly Old Time Gospel Singalong held at the neighboring Newfound Community Center, this area has a long history of faith-based activity. And when the economic crisis hit, says Leicester resident Betsy Mears, two local women, Cheryl Wallen and Alice Lutz, began hatching a plan to provide at least one balanced meal per week to people in the surrounding community. Lutz and Mears, both of whom attended Bell United Methodist Church in Leicester, persuaded the congregation to endorse the project.
And Lutz, who’s now deceased, gained a reputation along the way as one who simply wouldn’t take no for an answer when it came to ensuring the program’s success. Her rapidly expanding group of volunteers wrote letters to and met with folks from other local churches, most of whom pledged to help in any way they could. They visited existing welcome tables in Candler and Swannanoa and consulted with MANNA FoodBank for help in figuring out how much produce, meat and baked goods they’d need.
But Bell’s large meeting room, says Mears, was already committed to another ongoing project, in which parishioners anonymously provide clothing, school supplies, etc., to elementary school students at Christmas. That, however, meant the little church had no place to put a year-round welcome table. At this critical juncture, the Leicester Community Center’s board of directors offered to host the weekly event at no charge.
“What’s great about it is the fact that it’s at a neutral location,” notes Pastor David Green. “Some of these people go to area churches and some don’t have any interest in that. This is a way for neighbors to meet each other and get together over a meal. It’s just fantastic!”
An evolving mission
Paul Berkow dines at the welcome center frequently, but he says he’s there mainly for the conversation. “People are so nice; they work so hard and put out such a great meal. It’s fun.”
Carol Bryson, who volunteers there regularly, says, “There’s no stigma attached to those who choose not to attend church. We don’t push any belief on people. The community center is a central place; we don’t allow any religious activity. The volunteers have a prayer circle, out of the public view, but there’s no prayer at the beginning of the meal. People are free to pray individually. This program is about filling specific areas of need.”
The community center, she continues, is a site where kids in the Buncombe County Schools’ summer meal program can pick up their bag lunch. And during the welcome table’s first few years, “The parents would eat inside, and the kids would eat together at the picnic tables.” Eventually, however, the county stopped delivering meals to the community center on Wednesdays, so the kids could also enjoy a hot meal.
“We provided better food than the bag lunch,” notes Alan Cohlmeyer, the welcome table’s volunteer manager.
Parents, says Bryson, now schedule time on Wednesday for their kids to use the playground before going inside to eat. The kids are still eligible for a prepackaged meal from the county on another day. “We have a lot of kids in the summertime, and the seniors clearly enjoy their presence,” she explains. “Alice was especially interested in providing for the children and would be very pleased with the way the ministry has evolved.”
Welcome table volunteer Ron Gorby traces his desire to contribute to his time in the military. “The Navy teaches you to volunteer your time,” he says. “It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. We have a great group of people; I can be having the worst day in the world and the spiritual uplift just perks me right up.”
Gorby also runs a weekly food pantry out of the nearby Sandy Mush Community Center that’s supported by MANNA and the Leicester Community Welcome Table. He did the research, and the Sandy Mush board provided seed money.
Another key welcome table contributor, notes Bryson, is the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, which has “a big presence here. People can share individual concerns, like ‘Something’s happening on my road’ or ‘Can you check on my home?’” The county’s 33 COPS teams (an acronym for Community Oriented Problem Solving) “present a unique opportunity for citizens, especially elders, to have their concerns addressed,” says Lt. Roney Hilliard from the Office of Professional Standards.
Sheriff Van Duncan, meanwhile, says, “I think it’s important for the community to be involved in directing law enforcement, at least in part, to the things that they think are priorities.” The community center, he points out, is “a great place to get that contact, because the community members, a lot of them seniors, really appreciate the opportunity to come and enjoy the fellowship. It’s a great crowd: There are close to 200 every Wednesday.”
As with any relationship, he continues, “They’ve got to get to know you a little bit, but once they do … this helps us address problems in a community that a patrol response or an enforcement response won’t necessarily take care of. Everyone believes this is the best way to do business.”
Duncan announced last month that he plans to retire in 2018 rather than seek a fourth term. He also endorsed Executive Lt. Randy Smart as his choice for the county’s next sheriff. Asked about the welcome table connection, Smart said: “I continue to hold that vision and will continue along the path that he set us on. As for community-oriented policing, we really want to step that up a notch. … Every community has issues that differ somewhat. We do our best to quickly answer calls, but this gives us an opportunity to consider a broader range of issues. This is one of those places where, when you get out of your car, people come up, shake your hand and start a conversation. That’s what we like. We’re invested in our community, and we want folks to know that.”
Retired nurse Sharon Grove has been doing blood pressure checks at the Leicester Welcome Table for five years. Last year alone, she performed almost 900. “See those people out there?” she asks. “That’s what keeps me coming back.” She keeps a written record of the readings, so patients can share the information with their doctors.
Many other organizations also contribute to the project.
“The Council on Aging distributes literature on Medicare and Medicare supplements,” says Bryson. “Walgreen’s does our flu shot thing. They give information on prescription drug plans and give away journals. Area businesses and churches donate money.” ThermoFisher Scientific recently gave the project a commercial-grade freezer. “They donate about 100 freezers a year to various charities,” notes Cohlmeyer.
And though people eat for free, “We maintain a small donation box near the door,” Whitener explains, adding that the welcome table now donates about $300 a month to the Leicester Community Center.
Meanwhile, those who can’t make it to the community center also benefit.
“Shut-ins really appreciate the visit as well as the meals,” says Gorby, who both prepares and delivers the food. Helen Mears, who’s related to Betsy by marriage, also delivers meals to the homebound folks. “It gets me out of the house,” she says. “I get to see people I haven’t seen since leaving school.”
Katy German, MANNA FoodBank’s agency relations manager, underscores the importance of human contact. “Living in poverty can be isolating. The welcome table model is about more than just food: It gives people a way to stay connected.”
Just about everyone involved seems to agree that setting up a welcome table is no small task. But successful programs are always willing to share lessons learned.
One of the first things Whitener will tell you is, “We couldn’t do it without MANNA FoodBank.” Local grocery chains receive so many requests for donations, she notes, that the larger ones, such as Ingles, tend to donate through the nonprofit. “You can’t get everything there, but if you want to get the food for the prices we’re getting it…”
On average, says Cohlmeyer, “We spend about 18 cents per pound on food, probably two-thirds of which we get for free.”
MANNA FoodBank has certain requirements, and since most of the welcome tables in Buncombe County are church-affiliated, the partner organizations need to find common ground. In the case of the Leicester project, says Cohlmeyer, both the rules and the pastoral leadership have evolved over time.
But if you’re thinking about setting up a welcome table in your own community, he continues, here are some things you’ll need to consider. “You have to have adequate off-the-ground storage. Freezers are absolutely necessary. You have to prove to MANNA that you have a facility. You have to have a monthly maintenance program to prevent insect infestation. And you have to be sponsored by a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.”
Despite the many challenges, however, the Leicester Welcome Table, born in a small church in a rural community, has flourished. “I only wish Alice Lutz could be here to see how her idea has borne fruit,” says Bryson. And speaking of fruit, more and more local produce is finding its way onto the menu, and soon, the salads served on Wednesdays will be even more colorful.