Summit County's COMMUNITY DINNER
every Tuesday nite from 5p.m. to 7p.m. at the Elks Lodge in Silverthorne...
Community Dinner History
The Community Dinner of Summit County - The First 3 Years
In Fall 2008, members of Rotary Club of Summit County Colorado were dismayed by the state of the economy and how it was affecting workers, families and children in Summit County. Rotarian Deborah Hage went to a local social service program and asked what could be done to help. She was told that a weekly hot meal was needed as there were plenty of food banks for those who have cooking facilities but the homeless and children whose parents worked during meal times needed the food already cooked. Hage approached her club, Summit County Rotary and several members gave her their unwavering support to pursue providing a free weekly meal to any and all comers. Lord of the Mountains Lutheran Church was approached as a potential site and they pledged financial and volunteer support but decided the church fellowship hall was not big enough. Several other sites were explored until Elks Lodge 2561 jumped in and said they would be proud to serve as the food service site, provided that anyone who wished a meal would receive one. No one could be turned away.
The Elks Lodge has a large, commercial kitchen, equipped with convection ovens, dishwashing equipment and plenty of walk in refrigerator space. A partnership was formed with the Summit County Rotary, Lord of the Mountains and the Elks Lodge. Start up funds were obtained with a Rotary District Simplified Grant with District 5450 matching $4000 provided by Summit County Rotary. The resulting $8000 allowed for the initial food and supplies to be purchased. Brochures were printed in Spanish and in English and distributed to all of the schools as well as through the local food banks.
The goal was to provide a free, nutritious meal that welcomed everyone, regardless of need. The focus was on those struggling financially, the underemployed, unemployed, and homeless men, women and children. However, all were welcome. No one, by walking in the door, was identified as “poor.” There was no means testing. In three years those goals have not changed.
The first meal was prepared with trepidation by Rotarians Al and Liz Wickert on March 3, 2009. It was a very simple noodle casserole, served with fresh salad and bread and desserts provided by Safeway. All the volunteers watched the door when it opened at 5 pm to see if anyone would come. At first a few people who had walked over from the low income housing apartments down the street came in slowly, looked around, asked if this was the place for the free dinner. That night 50 people were served, 15 of the meals served were to children. The second meal was donated and prepared by Rotarian and Chef Bill Gilchrist. 62 people came. The numbers quickly climbed to 200 people served each week. It became clear people were coming for more then food. Elderly people came to enjoy a freshly prepared meal that was superior to what they would have prepared for themselves. The deaf community began making the Tuesday night dinner their weekly gathering spot. Numerous homeless people came as a means to come inside and sit down at a table. Parents found the dinner to be a time for relaxation and enjoyment as a family without the hectic pace of two parents working and rushing in the house to put something/anything on the table. At the long tables roofers sit next to horse trainers who sit next to hotel maids. The noise levels in the room rise as conversations quicken and everyone finds a new friend.
From March 2009 – March 2010 11,727 meals were served, including 3,672 to children. Approximately 300 people were served each week a meal of main course, fresh salad, fresh fruit, bread, vegetable and dessert. Numerous businesses contributed. Different chefs and individuals took turns cooking and various schools, churches, and other groups signed up to volunteer to serve and clean up each week. Funding flowed in from individuals, churches, businesses and private foundations located in Summit County.
In the years since its inception over almost 50,000 meals have been served, 10,000 plus served to children. December 13, 2011 Summit County Rotarians served a record high number of people – 557! The delicious meal of chicken cacciatore, pasta, fresh salad and mixed vegetables was donated by one of the Rotarians instrumental in starting the dinner, Chef Bill Gilchrist. Throughout the year about 1/5 of the meals are donated by restaurants. The remaining meals are planned and prepared by Deborah Hage and a crew of volunteer cooks.
Financial support continues to flow in and volunteer organizations vie for the privilege of serving. Many people belong to organizations that have a mandate to serve as part of their membership. The Community Dinner provides them meaningful ways to meet their commitment and in the process they discover the joy of being part of such a cooperative effort. Many volunteers come from within the community itself. Students are often required to have community service hours. They love to do them at the Community Dinner. People who are court ordered to do community service find serving the community they have harmed is a way to make restitution meaningful.
The extent of the generosity of people for this dinner has not yet been tapped. There is a unified support and pride in what, together, as a community Summit County is able to provide to the least of those among us. Summit County is not a place where the haves separate themselves from the have-nots. Rather Summit County, individuals, government boards, restaurants, resorts, service organizations and churches have together dedicated themselves to being a model for the entire nation of what it looks like to have a philosophy of abundance rather than scarcity. When $7000 was needed to replace the aging convection ovens donors quickly came forward. When the commercial coffee maker wore out a generous donor replaced it. When the fire suppression system needed an upgrade the expense was covered. A pipe backed up and a plumber stepped forward. The steam tray broke and an electrician took care of it. Diners throw into a donation jar what they can afford. For some it is a lot. For others it is nothing. It does not matter as there is overwhelming financial support of the dinner in Summit County.
The participants continue to primarily come from the service sector, those who are employed at minimum wage jobs’ making sure the resort runs smoothly. Most work 40 hrs a week and do not generate enough income to make ends meet. Even in the winter at 10,000 feet there are those who are camping in the woods. Others are “sofa surfers”, sleeping on one friend’s sofa until they wear out their welcome and move on to someone else’s sofa. Many have no way to prepare a meal so subsist on what they can eat cold from a can. Many of our diners are known as the “working poor.” Some arrive when the door opens, eat a robust dinner and then wait until the doors are about to close and then eat again! It is not uncommon for a diner to comment that the only time they get meat during the week, or fresh salad, or fresh fruit, is on Tuesday night. They are surprised to find we are not a “soup kitchen” but serve a full, restaurant style meal, but in larger then restaurant portions as seconds, and thirds, are always available for the asking. Additionally there are small groups of children who walk to the Elks Lodge alone as their parents are at work and there is no food in the house. The unaccompanied children are all well behaved and welcomed by the volunteers. It is not unusual for the Community Dinner to be the site of a child’s birthday party. The parents and children parade in with balloons and the birthday child and all go through the food line. Presents are opened at a community table; Happy Birthday is sung by several hundred dinner participants and if a cake with candles can be found it is served to great applause.
What everyone receives when the doors open is food and a whole lot more! The Elks Lodge Dining Hall is a perfect venue for the dinners. The smells from the kitchen radiate out through the oven vents into the street so everyone begins to anticipate the meal before they even enter. A large, log cabin room with warm pine log walls and big picture windows greet people when they enter. The aroma of fresh brewed coffee fills the air. The cafeteria-style line moves quickly, but slowly enough for each and every diner to be personally greeted. Physical hunger is definitely a reality! However, the fellowship, warmth, interaction between all strata of economic security sometimes trumps food as it is a place to rest and share with friends. Participants and volunteers comment that Tuesday night is their favorite night of the week! Members of Lord of the Mountains Lutheran Church, Elks Lodge 2561 and Summit County Rotary consider the Community Dinner to be among the finest projects they have ever participated in and are proud they are part of something that is so much bigger than anyone could have ever imagined.