Patty Holt-Gerwitz, Villa Ridge, and her husband Dave aren’t members of First Presbyterian Church in Union, but at least once a month they volunteer here for the free community meal served on Tuesday nights.

They had been looking for a local soup kitchen to help at when their daughter, who works as a therapist in the area, suggested First Presbyterian’s Welcoming Table.

“We showed up when they were doing their Christmas dinner a year ago. We said, ‘We want to help,’ and they said, ‘Well, come on down!’”

The experience has been so emotionally rewarding, they look forward to it every month.

“Dave and I get 10 times more out of this than we give,” remarked Holt-Gerwitz, who works in real estate. “If you think that your life is having problems, go do something for someone else, and it just puts it all into perspective.

“It just makes you pause. It’s like taking a spiritual vitamin. We leave here and feel good all over.

“This is our fun,” she said.

Dave, who works as a contractor, agreed.

“The time goes by pretty fast,” he commented, standing at the stove, stirring the rice that will be served with the Mexican casserole.

Served over 10,000 meals

Since The Welcoming Table began in January 2010, volunteers have prepared and served over 10,000 meals, said Laura Hill, Union, a member of First Presbyterian who keeps track of the number, along with a list of the entrees served each week (to make sure they don’t repeat too close together).

“Last year we served about 3,400,” Hill noted.

The volunteers who prepare and serve the meal most weeks are members of First Presbyterian, but there are other groups who help out regularly too, said the Rev. Linda Maconochie, pastor at First Presbyterian.

Zion United Church of Christ in Union handles the first Tuesday of the month, Second Blessings Food Pantry covers the third Tuesday, and the Union Kiwanis mans any fifth Tuesdays.

Over the years, others have helped out too, and the Rev. Maconochie is hopeful that more groups or even individuals will step forward.

“Our church has just 48 members,” she said. “So the goal is to get more people from the community to volunteer.

“One person can come up to help one week just to see what it’s like.”

For more information, people can call the church to speak with someone or leave a message.

People who can’t or don’t want to volunteer but do want to contribute are welcome to donate any of the groceries needed to make the meal, said Hill.

What’s involved in volunteering

The Welcoming Table needs between eight to 10 volunteers each week to make the meal happen.

These volunteers buy the food for the menu, prepare and cook the meal, then serve and clean up. Whoever is cooking the meal arrives at 4 p.m., and others trickle in after. The meal is served between 6 and 7 p.m., and volunteers are finished by 8 p.m. said the Rev. Maconochie.

Some people may come in just to help with the cleanup, she added.

The meal is served buffet-style. Guests come into the kitchen with their trays, and the volunteers scoop the servings on their plates.

“When they come back for seconds, they get new plates,” said the Rev. Maconochie. “We use (real) plates, that was important to us, because we wanted to make it homelike. We figure they eat on paper a lot, and this would make it sort of special.”

The night The Missourian visited, the meal included a small salad, corn and Mexican casserole and dessert. Drinks were coffee, iced tea, lemonade or chocolate milk.

“We’ve learned what works and what doesn’t,” said the Rev. Maconochie. “At first we weren’t aware that a lot of people have teeth problems. And so you can’t serve any raw vegetables.

“And they really don’t like vegetables mixed in with their casserole, things like that . . . We’ve learned what they like and what they don’t.”

About 50 guests come to the church basement to eat each week, plus another 25 meals or so are take-outs, sometimes sent home with guests for someone who couldn’t make it to church because they were sick or just couldn’t get there at that time.

No questions are asked about who the guests are and no documentation is required to prove a need.

“Whoever shows up, gets a meal,” said the Rev. Maconochie. “They can come back for seconds, thirds . . . until they’re full.”

‘If they need someone to talk to’

There’s never any pressure on guests to come to church, and a person’s faith and religion are never brought up by the volunteers. At the same time, the Rev. Maconochie makes herself available to talk to those who seek her out.

“You’re there if they need someone to talk to,” said Hill. “And they do sometimes.”

“Some weeks, it’s a month of pastoral care all in one hour,” the Rev. Maconochie said with a smile.

One time when a family of guests asked for some take-home meals, the volunteers were concerned because the family had never asked for take-outs before, so in probing a little they discovered the family had no food at home.

A volunteer made a quick call to the director of Second Blessings food pantry, which is located inside the church basement, and she gave approval for the volunteers to put together a box of food for the family to take home.

Another time they were able to get shoes for a guest who had none, and also help purchase medicine for a guest who needed it.

Some of the guests over the years have been homeless. Many live in the hotel across the street.

“It’s getting to be young adults,” said the Rev. Maconochie. “I’ve noticed a big increase in the 20-somethings.”

A few of the guests come for the social component, she said. Some have met each other through The Welcoming Table and have become friends, so now they sit together.

Word-of-mouth has always been the best means of letting people in the community know about The Welcoming Table, although the marquee sign on Main Street does remind people, and volunteers also post notices at area food pantries, the Franklin County Health Department, Laundromats and the libraries.

‘It’s a good feeling’

“A lot of the volunteers are here every time we do it, and have been for all four years because they enjoy doing it and feel it’s an important way to serve the community,” said the Rev. Maconochie.

“It’s a good feeling to know that you’re helping someone,” Hill added.

Several of the volunteers mentioned the close relationships that they develop with each other, as well as with the guests.

“There’s a definite camaraderie,” said Georgia Paulus, a First Presbyterian member who lives in Gerald. “There are people who we know, who we would not have known.”

When one of the women who had been coming all four years recently died, Rev. Maconochie did her funeral.

“They didn’t have another church, so we became their church, and I became their pastor,” she said.

“At Christmastime, we give all the kids presents. Zion UCC provides the gifts from its angel tree.”

Bonnie Woodruff, a widow and fellow member from Gerald, says she likes to volunteer at the weekly meal because she enjoys helping others and being around people. The work gets her interacting with others and it isn’t too hard or strenuous.

“Everyone helps everyone,” she said.

Vicky Schmidt, Union, has been volunteering at The Welcoming Table ever since she fell on hard times herself.

“I was one of the people living next door at the hotel,” she said. “I started coming to church here on Sundays, found out about the dinner and started coming over.”

Schmidt knows firsthand what it’s like for people who find themselves without a place to stay or little to no money to buy food.

“I was working a job and got hurt,” she said, noting it was an infection in her leg. “I was a facility manager at an assisted living center, and because I lived there, when I had the surgery, I had to have recovery, so I couldn’t work and lost my job, my house, everything all at the same time.

“The day I got out of the hospital, I was told I had eight hours to move, with no place to go,” said Schmidt.

That was back in October, and today things are getting better, she said. Now she’s up and walking — and back to volunteering at The Welcoming Table.