by Laurie Ghigliotti
Special to The Leaven
ATCHISON — Every few weeks, on a Saturday morning, 16-year-old Jake Hennigh and his father Dan spend some quality time together.
No, they don’t head out to a ball game, or settle in for a session of video games.
Instead, together, they deliver hot meals to Atchison shut-ins, courtesy of a program called Loaves and Fishes.
According to volunteer and St. Benedict’s Church parishioner Tresa Buessing, Loaves and Fishes was started by Father Ray Hartjen of Trinity Episcopal Church in Atchison to provide hot meals on Saturdays, typically for clients who receive Meals on Wheels during the week.
The project begun by Father Hartjen soon became a community effort, with several churches cooking and delivering on different weekends. The task of coordinating the effort has passed from church to church, with Atchison’s First Presbyterian Church overseeing the program now, Buessing said.
“Right now, there are eight Atchison churches involved,” she said. “I like the ecumenism of it all. It’s good for all of us.”
Buessing likens the community effort to families working together.
“Christians are like families,” she said.
Father Gerard Senecal, OSB, pastor of St. Benedict’s Church, agreed.
“It’s great that we can help in the same causes, aided by a variety of other churches,” he said.
St. Benedict’s Church covers the cost of the food for Buessing’s Loaves and Fishes group.
“The expense is modest,” said Father Gerard, “and the program helps some people who really need the support.”
Buessing’s team includes members of St. Benedict’s, St. Joseph and Sacred Heart parishes, with the Knights of Columbus doing most of the deliveries. Buessing’s group cooks, packages and delivers from the Project Concern kitchen. Up to 20 people are also served on-site.
As a Loaves and Fishes volunteer for 12 years, Buessing has seen a lot of changes.
“The group has evolved over the years,” said Buessing. “We have a core group that’s been together for three or four years now.”
About 60 meals are prepared each weekend. Buessing’s group always prepares the same meal for the weekends they’re assigned.
“We make a hamburger casserole,” said Buessing. “We also have ladies in the parish that bake brownies for us. The parish covers the cost of the food and Country Mart and Marigold’s [Bakery] give us their day-old bread.”
Buessing, her husband Larry, and their team begin working at 7:30 a.m. and finish up about 1 p.m.
Buessing encourages all the volunteers to take a turn delivering the meals.
“Everybody needs to deliver sometime to see the faces of the people you’re serving, or it just becomes a job,” she said. “Seeing them makes the experience more meaningful.”
“Another important thing about delivering is the personal contact with the person we’re delivering to,” Buessing said. “It reassures them that someone is checking on them.”
Dan Hennigh, a member of the Knights of Columbus, agreed that the people Loaves and Fishes serves are not just hungry for food. They crave human companionship, too.
“We may be the only people they talk to during the week,” he said. “So, we don’t just drop off meals and run off.”
Jake Hennigh likes helping, and he enjoys making his Saturday deliveries with his father.
“The people look so happy when they see me and it makes me feel really good,” Jake said.
The people Jake delivers meals to are not living in the best of circumstances, a fact that makes a big impression on the young man.
“There was this one lady, when I walked onto her front porch, it looked pretty bad,” he said, “but inside her house it was nice and clean.
“She had a little table, a chair, and a small TV. I didn’t see any other furniture.”
“It teared me up a little,” he added.
Knight of Columbus Rick Cordero of St. Joseph Parish has been delivering meals for Loaves and Fishes for about four or five years.
“I think it’s nice for the older people who can’t get out and around,” Cordero said. “When you live by yourself, you don’t like to do much cooking. And, when you get older, you might not eat as well as you should.”
For some volunteers like the Hennighs, the effort is also a family affair. Roy Ostertag is also a Knight and a Sacred Heart parishioner. He takes his granddaughters — Emilee, 16, and Lillee, 9 — along on his Loaves and Fishes deliveries.
“They do the running and I do the driving,” Ostertag said.
“Emilee was just a little girl when we started,” he added. “Emilee always liked to talk to the ladies [on the route].”
In the process of helping out, the girls enjoy time with their grandfather, as well as a meal with him and the other volunteers when the work is done.
In the end, more than the poor and elderly benefit from this modern take on the story of the loaves and fishes. Volunteers are touched by the experience and continue their association with the program.
Buessing is impressed by the generosity of the people who keep coming back to help.
“I’m always surprised at people’s generosity,” she said. “I don’t think anyone ever turns us down!”