by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — For those who are hungry and out of options, St. Mary’s Food Kitchen has been a dependable lifeline for one good meal a day, 365 days a year since 1982.
But that lifeline for hundreds of people was almost cut on March 17 when the COVID-19 pandemic began to shut down America.
On that day, the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, which owns the Wilhelmina Gill Community Center, as it is formally known, told interim manager and board member Heidi Fox they were shutting her down.
The people they served could not use the dining area at 645 Nebraska Ave. The volunteers from various faith communities could not use the kitchen. The only people who could be there were a couple of staff people and board members.
Fox was on her own. Cherri Roith, the manager, was out on medical leave and wouldn’t be back for a while. Fox had to come up with a “Plan B” at that very moment.
“There was no way I could shut down 100 percent,” said Fox, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Shawnee.
It was the third Tuesday of the month, the day assigned for volunteers from Good Shepherd Parish in Shawnee. Quickly, she called their parish volunteer coordinator and explained the situation. She asked for sack lunches to be made and brought to the Wilhelmina Gill Community Center parking lot.
“Heidi did it all on her own March 17,” said Arden Carr, a member of St. Mary’s Food Kitchen board and of Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa. “She contacted the church and asked them to make [sack lunches]. And she handed them out of her car in the parking lot of the service center.”
Disaster was averted — for one day.
Carr and his wife Mary Ann, also a volunteer, arrived the next day to help Fox. In the meantime, Fox persuaded the Unified Government to allow her to distribute food out of the kitchen’s alleyway receiving door.
The scramble to adapt
The ensuing couple of weeks were a scramble as Fox, the staff, the Carrs and a few others contacted the faith communities, shopped for supplies, figured out what had to be in the sack lunches, and checked and distributed sack lunches.
“It was a bit of a chore the first week,” said Arden Carr. “Once we got the hang of it, it worked pretty smoothly.”
By March 20, word spread that the food kitchen was still serving. Normally, the social service would serve about 300 meals a day, but soon the numbers grew to 800.
“We haven’t missed a day, not one day,” said Fox.
Now, things have loosened up a bit. Beginning July 1, the Unified Government allows the food kitchen (which does business as Hot Lunch Services, Inc.) to use the kitchen . . . with restrictions.
Only a handful of volunteers — the parish volunteer coordinator and five or six others — can be inside. Masks, social distancing and certain cleaning procedures are required.
A good number of the volunteers who formerly served at the kitchen are elderly retirees, many who have health issues. These are the very people who are most vulnerable to COVID-19.
For this reason, most participating churches and congregations have volunteers make a specified number of sack lunches in their home, which are dropped off at the churches and then taken to the kitchen. Some faith communities make some sack lunch components at their churches.
A few collect sack lunches and send parish volunteer coordinators with five or six volunteers to the food kitchen to warm up some items and place them in the sacks.
All sack lunches are checked at the food kitchen to ensure they are complete. Sometimes a special “goody bag” for children is included for families.
Curé of Ars Parish and the Church of the Nativity, both in Leawood, even still supply in-kitchen volunteers.
Parish: No lack of volunteers
Jacqueline Elbert, parish volunteer coordinator for Curé of Ars, discovered that the new way of making meals for the food kitchen has actually increased the number of participating volunteers, not decreased it.
“More people are feeling a deep desire to in some way help, and so they turn to the church and say, ‘There are hungry people. How do we help?’” said Elbert.
Nevertheless, she and the other parish volunteers miss the camaraderie of working together at the actual kitchen. People looked forward to that.
“The first month, April, we didn’t have any of that,” said Elbert. “It was just myself and another board member at St. Mary’s Food Kitchen doing what we needed to do so Curé of Ars would have a presence. . . . We had to figure out a way to include more people and be safe about it. So, we slowly added people.”
Like the other parishes, the Church of the Nativity went from 30 to 40 volunteers for St. Mary’s to zero, and had to rebuild and reconfigure its ministry, said Mike Amos, parish volunteer coordinator.
“We serve in a half hour what used to take two hours before,” said Amos. “You have to have a lot of sack lunches ready to go.”
There’s more to it than just handing out sacks.
“We often have to add milk to some of them [for children],” said Amos. “We have to have them ready in boxes so they’re easy to access, ready and staged to go out the back room. We inspect them to make sure all lunches have appropriate items in them and put them in boxes so they’re easy to serve.”
At the time of the switch-over, the parishes were all closed. Instead of filling out a sign-up sheet at the church, Amos had to figure out a way for people to volunteer online. They, like other parishes, used the application SignUpGenius.
“I had some trepidation when we transferred to online sign-ups,” said Amos. “When I sent out the email [for volunteers], it was amazing to see how many we got. I was surprised how quickly people adapted to the new way of doing things.
“And my parish never ceases to amaze me with its generosity.”
Amos also drew upon the email lists of existing parish organizations to find volunteers.
Mick Kelly, parish volunteer coordinator for Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa, said the number of meals served has more than doubled, and they are seeing more children.
“More people are out of work and looking for food,” said Kelly. “As soon as the pandemic hit, the schools closed and more kids began to show up. Normally, we only see that during the summer. But since March, April and May, the numbers have bumped up.
“My suspicion is that the number of children will be higher in the fall because kids will be going to school online from home.”
His parish has seen an increase in volunteers for this ministry, too. Parishes making lunches for a couple of other entities simply switched over to the food kitchen ministry.
“It has opened my eyes to how willing people are to volunteer and help out,” said Kelly. “God will provide. We’ve doubled the number of people we serve.”
“If you told me five months ago this would happen, I don’t know I would have believed it,” he added. “It’s been eye-opening.”
According to Fox, there is no word from the Unified Government on when the food kitchen can return to normal operations. She anticipates that they will continue to serve sack lunches out the service door for the remainder of 2020. Between March 17 and Aug. 1, they have served 80,000 sack lunches.