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The Suburbanite
  • Will Work For Food: Meal ministry feeds people in need

  • As we drove from Alliance toward Refuge of Hope Ministries, I wondered about the other families heading to the same place — parents in a different situation than us, bundling up their children on this frigid night, assuring them that, yes, there would be something to eat tonight.

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  • “Come on gang, we’re going somewhere special tonight.”
    That’s what my husband and I told our kids as we headed out the door a few weeks back. A surprise weeknight outing? Their curiousity was piqued.
    As we drove from Alliance toward Refuge of Hope Ministries, I wondered about the other families heading to the same place — parents in a different situation than us, bundling up their children on this frigid night, assuring them that, yes, there would be something to eat tonight.  
    I also pondered what Jo Ann Carpenter told me on the phone a few days earlier as we talked about the alarming hunger statistics in Stark County.
    “In 2008 we served 14,500 meals,” said Carpenter, the meal ministry manager at Refuge of Hope. “In 2012, we were just shy of 69,000 meals.”
    Twenty-five minutes later, we pulled into the lot at Refuge, located downtown in the former home of Ohio China.
    “What is this place?” said my 11-year-old daughter, Lexi, peering out the window.
    “It’s a place where they give free meals to people who need them,” I said. “We’re going to help serve dinner.”
    She looked panicked.
    “A soup kitchen?” asked my 16-year-old son, Daniel, clearly apprehensive.
    “Well, yes, and no,” I said. “It’s not called that anymore.”
    Repeating words Carpenter told me days earlier, I explained that “meal ministry” is a more fitting name, and the people we would be serving are referred to as patrons.
    My 18-year-old daughter, Grace, was not the least bit timid.
    “Come on, guys, it will be fine,” she said. “It will be a good experience. They’re just people.”
    We talked a few minutes more about looking people in the eye, about being cheerful and respectful. Nonetheless, I know we all braced ourselves upon entering the door marked “Patrons.” Inside, long tables lined both sides of the dining room. About 110 people filled the chairs for the 5:30 p.m. seating, one of two held nightly Monday through Thursday.
    Eyes turned our way as we filed down the center of the room to join volunteers in the kitchen. Most of the patrons were men, an equal number of black and white, but there also were a handful of women and children. There were far fewer families tonight due to the cold, Carpenter surmised.
    Many of the men were homeless, she said. Other patrons had residences, but struggled with drugs, alcohol or mental health. Many were there because they simply could not make ends meet.
    “It might come down to buying groceries or being able to pay rent,” she said.
    Age crossed the spectrum.
    “I have a lot of seniors, like Russell, who is 93,” said Carpenter, nodding toward a smiling, frail gentleman.
    Page 2 of 2 - Other people come for fellowship. Such as Nate, a 67-year-old divorced retiree who rides his motorized scooter over from the Canton Towers apartments four nights a week.
    “I have no problem cooking, I enjoy cooking,” said Nate, whose specialties include homemade bread rolls and stuffed pepper soup. “But I like getting out, I have friends down here, and it helps stretch the budget.”
    Before dinner, Carpenter led the group in grace and praise. She prayed for all those present, for those regulars who were not, and for those experiencing a rough patch in life. She also thanked God for blessings bestowed.
    It was time for dinner. There would be no lining up, cafeteria style.
    “At one point the meals were served on a sectioned tray like you get in high school, with a spork,” Carpenter said. “Now we serve banquet style, with flowers on the table, with a fruit salad, and bread and butter preset so if they need something to eat right away they can have it.”
    My husband, Todd, helped portion food onto real ceramic plates:  Hamburgers with lettuce and tomato, green beans, and macaroni and cheese. Daniel, Grace and I served meals. Lexi stood close to me, watching, but was too shy to serve. I was proud of my children’s poise and politeness.  
    I approached a boy about Lexi’s age, offering him a plate. He declined, insisting he wasn’t hungry. I knew he was embarrassed, and it was painful to watch him try to hide behind his eyes. I blinked back tears thinking he might be hungry later with no food in his house.
    As we served meals, cleared plates, and distributed homemade cake, there was no shortage of gratitude. An African American man, about 30, wearing a long black overcoat, sought Carpenter out before heading into the cold.
    “Thank you for the food,” he said warmly.
    Carpenter glanced at me as he walked away.
    “It happens all the time,” she said. “All the time.”
    As we prepared to leave, I told Carpenter what moved me most. During grace, as I looked across the room of 110 bowed heads, the sense of family was palpable. It was no different than grace said in my own house, at my own dinner table, with my own family of five.
    “You felt it because this is a family,” she said. “That’s how they feel. The feel like they are coming home to eat. They feel comfortable, and cared for, and loved. That’s important when life is hard, that there is someone there who cares.”