- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 5, 2014

NEW ALBANY, Ind. (AP) - Bobbie Baird says it speaks highly of the Floyd County church community that every day of the week, there’s a free meal to be had for those in need.

Baird, executive assistant at Centenary United Methodist Church, should know. She has an up-close view of the volunteers who make free meals to community members a reality. In New Albany, there are more than 25 churches of different faiths and hundreds of volunteers who work to provide meals and groceries to people in the community every day of the week.

There are nine churches in the downtown corridor that take turns hosting the meals, and several have rotating volunteer teams from other churches in the area, troops from Boy Scouts and even a student culinary class. Although each church may have its own system in place for making it happen, they all share the same goal - to provide a free hot meal to anyone in the community who wants one, the News and Tribune reported (https://bit.ly/1ctXyLK ).

Christine Harbeson, executive director at Hope Southern Indiana - a faith-based community ministry - said some of the churches came together and began working on serving food to those in need several decades ago, at a time when crossing denominational lines was sometimes difficult.

“There were people who were just brave enough to step outside their comfort zone and realize that people needed to eat, and it didn’t matter what title you wanted to put on your nametag,” Harbeson said. “They just all got together and started making it work. It has absolutely nothing to do with whose name is on the door.”

Harbeson said although her organization works to keeps everyone updated on scheduling and to let community members know which church will be serving food each day of the week, it really comes down to each team leader to organize the preparation of the meal for the time slot they have.

“I think it’s amazing how it works,” she said. “I’ve never heard of anything like this before in any community I’ve ever lived. It’s kind of so loosely done that it works. I just think they’re wonderful.”

At Centenary UMC, 309 E. Spring St., hot meals are served every Sunday at 4:30 p.m. and from 6 to 7 p.m. on Thursdays.

This meal program, which is now called Christ’s Kitchen, has been in operation for 27 years. According to church records, 12,925 people were served in 2013, either through Christ’s Kitchen or the food pantry, which is open every Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Baird said the meal is open to anyone with no restrictions. To get food from the food pantry, proof of Floyd County residency is required for visits after the first one. Each person is allowed to go to the food pantry once every 30 days.

Some of the food comes from Louisville-based Dare to Care Food Bank, Baird said. There are volunteers who regularly go pick up food to help stock the pantry and get some of the supplies for the weekly meals. Donations from church members and others in the community help fill in the gaps.

“There are just a lot of places that donate,” Baird said. “So many generous companies and businesses and individuals in this community keep this running. I think that is a wonderful thing. This couldn’t possibly have been done without that.”

Bob Wells, congregation member at Centenary United Methodist Church, has been volunteering weekly for Christ’s Kitchen for 15 years and said he has seen people from all walks of life come through those doors to eat.

“It’s children, it’s adults, it’s people that are unemployed, that are down on their luck - it’s such a mixture,” he said. “We try to make an all-out effort to connect and interact with the people and make sure they come and feel very welcome. We’re there to help people, not judge them.

“Most of us have no comprehension of what they endure in a day’s time.”

Wells said the church is on a campaign to raise money to revamp the kitchen to help make it possible to go on serving meals to those in need for many years to come. He said the Centenary kitchen has always been a very busy one.

“That stove is probably 55 to 60 years old. Lord knows how many meals it’s cooked and prepared,” he said.

Wells said they are happy to open up the use of their kitchen to teams from other churches to help make sure everyone gets fed.

“There’s a lot of camaraderie with the other teams that we work with - that’s something we try to be very visible about,” Wells said. “We’re very intentional about making sure we all work together, and we’re all accountable.”

Deneen Burks, a regular patron of the Thursday night meal at Centenary UMC and others, has made a few friends in the kitchen over time, like volunteer Brent McCollum.

“This one here’s my favorite,” Burks said, referring to McCollum.

On some occasions, Burks stops in the kitchen to talk with the volunteers on her way out.

“It’s a good place to have supper,” Burks said. “It depends on who’s fixing it too, of course.”

St. Mark’s United Church of Christ, at 222 E. Spring St., hosts a meal at noon every Saturday. During the same time, people can come and get clothing, blankets and coats from the church’s Clothes Closet.

The Rev. John Manzo said the meal has been served for more than 12 years, and he’s proud of his congregation members and other groups who help make it happen each week.

“What I really like about it is that all the teams work really, really hard to make a nice meal. The team that does breakfast, they come up with sausage, eggs, biscuits and gravy - I mean it’s elaborate,” Manzo said. “Especially around the holidays, the teams try to put on something a little extra special that goes with the holiday and makes it a little more festive.”

For the past three years, Susan Ryan has been volunteering with a team at Mt. Tabor Presbyterian Church that serves a meal once a month at Silver Street United Methodist Church.

“You get to know folks, and I find in general they’re just wonderful,” Ryan said. “Almost all of them stop by the kitchen on their way out and thank us. There’s a real gratitude there and a real politeness.

She said the experience has been valuable for her, and she enjoys the people she serves and works with.

“It’s the bonding you have of working in the kitchen every month for that many hours together, “Ryan said. “I think that every team experiences that.”

Ryan said there was an instance several months ago when a family of five came in after most of the food was gone. She and her team scrambled to put something together for them quickly and said when they sat down to eat, she was affected by how quiet and focused the children were on the meal.

“When you look at kids and see that they’re so intent on eating and they’re not fussing about what’s put in front of them, it’s just those kinds of moments when you know you’re really meeting a serious need.”

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Information from: News and Tribune, Jeffersonville, Ind., https://www.newsandtribune.com

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