Sunday dinner: Feeding a community

Stan approaches the counter, a limp in his step and a smile on his face. He's gotten his four-year chip and he wants to show it off. 

Noah, no more than eight, drags the back of his hand across his mouth and dumps his plate into the trash, just like he was taught the first time he came here.

There's Michelle and Doris, the younger crew that sits by the front doors and the club of older ladies--a Rosie the Riveter among them--that requests the same table every Sunday. These are the people of Soup's On, a Sunday night community dinner held in the Shepherd room of the Cottage Grove Community Center. "I'm the mom and they're comfortable here. They know we don't have an agenda," Sharon Jean, founder of Soup's On, said. 

The program is in its seventh year and Jean still stands guard over her flock from her spot in the kitchen. She's the boss. And they know it. 

When talk of starting a soup kitchen for any and  all who needed it without the hoopla of checking IDs, monitoring incomes and reporting to a governing agency, the community was skeptical. But Jean is used to it.

She's counciled boards in Hawaii and worked on political campaigns in Alaska. She understands people and with decades of experience under her belt she still has just one mission.

"I just want to feed people," she said. 

So, she took her cause to the city. Cottage Grove City Manager Richard Meyers, she said, had his doubts on top of concerns about an unmonitored dinner that boasted free food.

"But, they have just as much right to be in that building as anyone else," Meyers told The Sentinel.

"I did think it was nuts!" he said. "I asked here where are you getting the volunteers and where are you getting all the food?" 

Jean had a plan. Food for Lane County, a food pantry that serves outlets catering to low-income and homeless indivduals, requires certain criteria be met. But Jean didn't want to ask people their income level or document who was coming in and when. Instead, she relies on donations to feed her diners and occasionally she receives food from Community Sharing, the local food pantry. 

Meals are made up of what she gets. Tonight, it's roasted vegetables and oven-baked tomatoes with cheese bread. Apple pie and brownies for desert. 

The meal is planned for 5 p.m. and set to close at 6 but they never turn anyone away.

"If it's 10 after six and someone comes in, we have frozen mac and cheese or frozen chili. They don't leave hungry," Jean said. 

That includes those who showed up on time. 

Each diner is given a brown-bagged lunch for the following day. Usually a peanut butter sandwhich with a snack or two. 

It's just afer 6 p.m. and Jean, with her troupe of five volunteers start to clean up. 

Ann Marie Herron and her husband Pete have been lending a hand for more than three years. Pete--who does the dishes--was only supposed to accompany his wife on the first night.

"When the weather is nice," Herron said, "We don't get as many people but when it gets cold, the whole world is in here." 

The group uses 50 as their base for everything. 50 chairs arranged around clothed tables. 50 plates served by volunteers like in a restaurant and not lined up for diners to take like in a shelter. 50 brown-bagged lunches given out by a volunteer with a smile and a "Have a nice night." 

As Jean flutters around the tables of those who are left eating and volunteers begin to clean up, Ron Jean continues to strum his guitar and rasp out "Brown Eyed Girl." Music, said his playing partner Jim Schaper, better known as Farmer Jimmy. 

"Some people come in here stressed," he said. "And if there's just the sound of flatware clinking it's aggrevating! This way they know somebody's there and somebody cares." 

Jean won't think about what's for dinner next week until sometimes Monday afternoon. It will depend on what she has in storage--a refrigerator and freezer in the community center and another set of storage containers at her home.

"I just feed people," she said. "Some are homeless, some aren't. But they sit very well together. Food is the great equalizer and it brings people together." 


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