Labor of Love: Welcome Table ministry continues to grow, serve community needs
By Melanie Tucker | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
What started with one Maryville church offering the community a weekly opportunity to break bread together has turned into a labor of love for hundreds of volunteers who would like to see this ministry grow even more.
Chef Amelia Geis, who was hired last November to run the two Welcome Table sites, is among those who believe the faith community here can take on that mission of growth. The Welcome Table was started by New Providence Presbyterian Church back in 2008. More than 100 volunteers show up at the free hot meal each Tuesday evening to set up, cook, serve and clean up. ‘
The doors to The Welcome Table open promptly at 5 p.m., usually with a line forming long before that. Then a couple of years ago, First United Methodist of Maryville began operation of a second Welcome Table location. Theirs provides the weekly meal at 5 p.m. on Thursdays.
A joyful experience
“That’s two nights a week where families can come and be served a hot meal, where they can sit down and enjoy the food and not have to work or worry,” Geis said.
When she came to The Welcome Table last November, there were about 100 to 120 people coming to FUMC each Thursday. Now there are more than 200. At New Providence on a recent Tuesday, several families that have fallen on hard times also came to enjoy a nutritious meal. “We have gone from 160 there to over 250,” Geis said.
In other words, the two Welcome Tables combined have already served over 10,000 people this year.
There are men and women who have lost their jobs, widows and widowers, families who find it hard to make ends meet on a minimum wage salary, seniors who can’t also pay for medication and a decent meal. All are welcome.
These guests are served on nice dinnerware, silverware and linens — no plastic, breakable knives and forks. Servers bring the food to the table along with drinks. Women at both churches also provide homemade desserts.
Up to the task
Geis has 16 years worth of experience working for Williams-Sonoma and grew up in a Presbyterian church kitchen, where her mother provided lots of culinary expertise. She said her mom has given her the cookbook she uses at The Welcome Table, called “Food for 50.” She simply quadruples the recipes to fit her crowds.
Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are spent driving around town, picking up food donations. Sometimes they come from local food pantries who have been given giant cans of pumpkin or huge bags of rice and beans they can’t give out to their small families. Geis doesn’t turn anything down. Local produce markets might have tons of squash or some extra watermelon. She knows what to do.
“I make use of everything,” this chef said. “If I have a turkey that’s donated, I make dinosaur legs for the kids. Then I make soup out of whatever’s left.”
Her favorite thing on her menu is the meatloaf, made from her mother’s recipe. She said a fan favorite is the garlic chicken. And the beef chili she made recently was a huge hit.
Geis makes good use of volunteers like Larry Cochran at FUMC, who was there on a recent Thursday doing whatever needed doing. He’s been volunteering since The Welcome Table began here at his church. Likewise Suzanne Click reserves Thursday afternoons for helping this growing ministry.
“This has truly been a blessing,” Click said. “It was a dream from New Providence. It was their dream that other churches would take a day and serve a meal. Someday, hopefully, there will be a meal on every night of the week.”
The volunteers at both New Providence and FUMC also include people who aren’t members of the churches. Some are students, like Jess Ivens, who recognizes that community service is both a responsibility and opportunity.
All have a part
Clarence Smith is a member of Foothills Unitarian Universalist Fellowship here in Maryville. He volunteers at both sites, setting up, serving and cleaning up. This is a man who has fallen on hard times himself. That’s no excuse, he said, to sit on the sidelines.
“You get attached to all of the people you meet here,” he said. “It’s something I really love to do.”
There are even those who drive vans to pick up guests around town and take them home again.
Geis is committed to continuing to serve large crowds at both Welcome Tables, a testament that a need for this ministry is real. She said she is always in need of volunteers to make it all work.
It was Patty Quinn and Pam Bunde at New Providence who started all of this. There were 18 people who showed up at that first Welcome Table session four years ago.
It’s important to Geis that the food is attractive on the plate, that it’s nutritious and flavorful. “I have to have something green on the plate,” she said. And because this might be one of few hot meals guests will have all week, this chef wants it to be the best she can offer.
There are places like Texas Roadhouse that have been supporting The Welcome Table for years. Anytime Geis needs rolls, salad and green beans, they provide. HoneyBaked Ham has also made contributions.
Making it all work
The menus are planned a month in advance and Geis tries not to offer the same choices at both locations in the same week. She said sometimes she feels like a competitor on the TV show “Iron Chef,” where chefs are given a secret ingredient they have to incorporate into hearty dishes. When a truck full of squash rolls in, she has to be ready.
Financial donations are also appreciated. Geis said both churches provide that support in addition to the volunteers who serve. A donation basket is also located at both churches for anyone who wishes to contribute.
Geis has been part of this community since 1998 and said New Providence and FUMC feel like family. “These churches have taken me in,” she said. “It’s just an amazing ministry.”
And even though it’s often hard to judge just how many people will show up, Geis said she’s never run out of food. “We had one piece of cake left last Thursday, but we didn’t run out,” she said.
The process for prepping, serving and cleaning up has certainly been streamlined for this ministry. Geis said they can be out and headed for home by 6:30 p.m.; the doors close at 6.
“It really is like a restaurant,” she said. “What other place can serve 250 people in an hour?”