IFCH meals serving more than ever

Julia Rhoads, left, and Susan Wolf serve food at an IFCH meal last week.  - Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo
Julia Rhoads, left, and Susan Wolf serve food at an IFCH meal last week.
— image credit: Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo

When Ed Swan became the meal coordinator for the Interfaith Council to Prevent Homelessness (IFCH), he was in for a surprise.

Swan volunteered to cook for and serve at several of the twice-weekly dinners in past years, in part to give his young sons the experience of serving those less fortunate than them.

“It’s a nice tangible way to give some service to the community,” he said.

However, within a couple of weeks of beginning his new position this year, he was serving more people than he ever had before.

The first meal this fall had only six people, but that number doubled each week for two or three weeks, Swan said. He now sees 15 to 25 guests at each meal, a far cry from the half dozen he usually served last winter.

Indeed, attendance at the meals rose sharply last winter, said Emma Amiad, who heads IFCH. Now in their sixth year serving the meals, she said, they seem to have finally gathered traction in the community.

“Part of that is more people know about the program,” Amiad said. “Part of it is there are more people hurting.”

On one recent night, the meal was truly a bustling affair, with 20 guests, including four children. Served in the fellowship hall of the Presbyterian church, the meal attracted Islanders of all ages and backgrounds.

The guests, many of them regulars, seemed to find more than financial need in common as they stood in line to fill their plates and shared a homemade meal of baked ham, scalloped potatoes, bread and salad.

Men bundled in jackets gathered around the church’s large, round tables, sometimes shooting the breeze and sometimes eating in silence as children ran around the room, playing with friends and squealing with delight.

Carl Hamlow, who lives in low-income housing on Vashon and works odd jobs, said he is grateful there is somewhere on the Island he can get a warm, homemade meal twice a week. On other nights, he said, he usually heats up frozen meals for himself.

“It’s better than microwave food,” he said.

John Hopper, a young man with long, blonde hair, sat eating quietly with his wife, who bounced their toddler-age daughter in her lap as their son played foosball nearby. Her large belly showed they were soon expecting another.

Though not homeless, Hopper said taking advantage of the IFCH meals helps him support his family with only a part-time job. On Wednesdays, he said, they eat a meal served at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit.

“To have two or three nights you don’t have to cook dinner for the whole family is nice,” he said.

Amiad said that while the IFCH meals provide warm, healthy food to Vashon’s homeless and underprivileged, they feed more than just their stomachs.

“It isn’t just about the food,” she said. “It gives them some social contact with others in the community. It gives them a warm place to be for a couple hours every week.”

In some cases, Amiad said, the meals have made a true difference in the lives of those who partake in them.

“Just having that compassion and love shown to them is very important,” she said. “It’s often the motivating factor that helps them move on … because they see there are other people in the community who actually care. That’s a big deal.”

As the numbers attending the meals have grown, IFCH has had no trouble finding volunteers to make the meals possible.

A truly interfaith effort, families from almost every church and religious organization on the Island volunteer to donate food, cook and serve meals throughout the fall, winter and spring.

“I tend to book a couple months in advance,” said Swan, who has volunteers planned through December but is always looking for more.

In addition to feeding more people, thanks to the plethora of volunteers, IFCH has been able to provide meals for longer periods of time each year.

While in the beginning IFCH only served meals during the coldest months, November through January, they now serve October through May.

Henry Sauer, who attends the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said he and his wife Sue volunteered for a meal this month after having a positive experience doing so last spring. Cleaning up after the meal, they said that serving Vashon’s less fortunate is special for them because as long-time Islanders they know many of those who come to the meals.

“The experience is always a joy,” he said. “We get get more of a blessing doing it than they get receiving it.”

Though they have even watched some of the guests grow up, Sauer said they do not to think of themselves as better than any of them.

“They’re just going through a different experience,” he said. “We might be in that spot someday too, going through that experience, and we’d be thankful that these people are here.”

Pete and Susan Wolf, who also volunteered for a meal this month, said they could relate to those they served. Susan has a brother who was once homeless for a time.

“I always hope that as I am showing kindness to others someone is being kind to my brother,” she said. In addition, Pete lost his job and fell ill in the last year, causing a financial bump for the couple.

“We knew no matter what we were going to eat, but other people aren’t so fortunate,” Susan said. “We’re grateful to be able to share.”

IFCH is raffling off two holiday gift baskets worth over $700 each. The baskets, full of gifts and gift certificates from local merchants and artists, are on display at U.S. Bank and Bank of America. Tickets are $5 and can be purchased at Blooms & Things and Kronos. Tickets will also be sold at upcoming holiday events.

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