The dedicated volunteers of Feed the Hungry Inc. have served more than 125,000 meals to the needy in Clackamas County, and even a snowstorm and a power outage a few years ago didn't slow them down. But now the organization needs help in order to keep the pantry open.
To celebrate its 20th anniversary this year, Feed the Hungry will host its first-ever fundraiser, and Phil Wallace, board chairman of the Milwaukie-based, nonprofit, non-denominational organization, is hoping for an outpouring of community support.
The fundraiser is actually in two parts, he said. It begins with a silent auction during Milwaukie's Art a la Carte, First Friday event on Oct. 7 from 4 to 8 p.m. at St. John Episcopal Church. And it will conclude at a luncheon the next day, Oct. 8, from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. at the church, when the winners of the silent auction bids will be announced.
'There are 10 round tables and one person from the organization is responsible for getting six or seven seats filled at each table. We'll have a brief overview of the program and two long-time diners will tell people what the program means to them, and then we are hoping people will be generous,' Wallace said.
People who cannot attend the luncheon or auction but wish to help may send checks to the organization, and all donations are tax-deductible, he added.
Feed the Hungry Inc. was started by Wallace's wife, Val, and her friends Victoria and John Brown.
'Victoria and I started discussing the idea of creating a soup kitchen to feed the homeless people in our area. Shortly after this, John, Victoria's father, and I began a discussion to make this idea actually happen. We consulted with Father Richard Toll, who 100 percent supported the idea, and soon the project was implemented,' she said.
The three decided that the
program would serve any person who indicated a need for a free meal, regardless of income or religion.
'We named the program Feed the Hungry. It was to be more than a feeding program; it was to be a gift of hospitality to the community. Diners would be treated with respect, be treated as guests in our parish hall and served at least a one-course meal,' she said.
Many other organizations dedicated to helping the needy were closed on Sundays, so the three decided that Sunday was the best day to do the meal.
The first week, only four people showed up; the next week, 16 guests came, and after that the program grew to its current 90 to 120 people per meal.
Although Feed the Hungry began as a ministry of the church, 'doing what churches are supposed to do, giving back to the community, John, Val and I soon decided that the community should recognize the need in the county. That this would be a good community builder, if we could get groups in Milwaukie involved with the program,' Phil Wallace said.
In 1995, the group incorporated and reached out to the fire district, high schools, the Rotary Club and other organizations and churches, asking members to volunteer to cook one or two meals throughout the year. One group might cook the meal, while another group serves and cleans up afterward, Wallace said.
'We try to put the meal on as if people were invited to dinner in our homes. We don't make people stand in line. We let them into the lobby, where we have snacks and beverages' before the meal begins, he added.
Wallace attributes the longevity of the organization to community support of the program, and he also takes pleasure in working with young people who show up from area high schools and county community service programs.
Sometimes the younger people are a little reluctant to participate when they are just getting started, but 'once they start meeting [the diners] and hearing their stories, it changes some attitudes. There is something very energizing about the program - it is so satisfying to see people here, knowing they'll make it for another week,' Wallace added.
'Heart of Milwaukie'
Feed the Hungry doesn't usually do canned food drives, Wallace noted, because cooks need enough of the same ingredients to serve 100 to 150 people. The group is eligible to pick up food from the Oregon Food Bank, some for free, some for a reduced rate, and Safeway donates surplus baked goods every week, so each diner gets a dessert and sometimes a loaf of bread, as well.
Sometimes volunteers, like the firefighters, bring in their own food to cook for the diners, Wallace said.
There has been a slight upsurge in the number of diners due to today's economic situation, he said, noting that some families with children have been coming in for the meal.
The county did a survey last January, Wallace said, and about 60 percent of the diners are homeless; most of the rest of the diners are retired or non-working people in their 70s and 80s.
'Everybody is welcome. We see ourselves as the heart of Milwaukie, and if people have the urge to serve their community, this is the place to do that,' he added.
Volunteers are always needed, Wallace said.
'We would love to have 26 dedicated cook/serving teams to work just twice a year; that makes it a fun group-building experience for work teams, large families, civic groups, etc. We would like the board to represent a good cross-section of Clackamas County - municipal groups, professionals, students, business people; we need new, qualified dedicated board members.'
At Christmas time, groups donate hats, gloves and toiletries, so that every diner gets a stocking full of goodies, he said. The food bank provides the organization with blankets, but Wallace would like to see more donations of items for adult men, who make up 75 percent of the diners.
But before and after the holidays, it will be Sundays as usual, with at least 100 hungry diners showing up.
Some volunteer cooks are creative with their offerings, he said, noting that once a cook made 150 cream puffs. Sometimes it is just spaghetti or casseroles, but there is always soup, salad and dessert.
Wallace added, 'I want to see the program go for another 20 years. We only need eight to 10 people to put on a meal. It is amazing to see what you can do - I didn't know I could cook for 150 people.'
• Feed the Hungry silent auction: Friday, Oct. 7, during First Friday, from 4-8 p.m.
• Fundraiser luncheon: Saturday, Oct. 8, from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. Both events at St. John Episcopal Church, 2036 S.E. Jefferson, Milwaukie.
• To donate, send checks to: Feed the Hungry, P.O. Box 220352, Milwaukie, OR 99222.