More than 12,000 meals have been served over the past 13 years at the New Community United Methodist Church every Wednesday night to anyone who wants to come and partake.
Since Sept. 2004, there have been food donations, volunteer cooks, servers and cleanup crews working to provide these meals. The Methodist church has not performed this ministry on its own. In 2017, Christ Church Anglican, St. Raphael’s Episcopal Church, Oakhurst Healthcare & Wellness Centre and the Church of Latter Day Saints have provided food and volunteers to help with the dinners.
In past years, others have helped: the Positive Living Center, the Jewish community, Boy Scouts, Future Homemakers of America and Yosemite High School seniors working on their Senior Projects.
“We once received 750 pounds of sausage from the food bank,” said Ginger Straughn, the leading force behind the community meal concept. “I stored sausage all over Oakhurst in personal freezers, at Fresno Flats and in our newly purchased freezer down in Whittenburg Hall. You can make a variety of things with sausage, but after awhile I heard the remarks, ‘sausage again?’”
“New Community United Methodist Church sees itself as a missional church,” said Pastor Gayle Basten. “It’s [feeding the hungry] a way for us to live out God’s love for the community of Oakhurst.”
During a recent meal of barbecued lamb sliders, tossed salad, vegetables, au gratin potatoes and dessert, the youth of the Methodist church were helping with various tasks as they have whenever there is a fifth Wednesday in a month. But beginning in October, they will be helping on the third Wednesday of each month as the Oakhurst Healthcare & Wellness Centre residents who have been prep cooks and servers step back for the winter months.
Straughn and Pastor Jim Luther, who was serving the church at that time, planned for that first meal in 2004 . It “included spaghetti with meat sauce, green beans and salad,” Straughn said. “Several church members were in attendance, however, only one customer came and, would you believe, he was a vegetarian? This man continued to attend Community Meal for several years.”
But as word about the meals spread, the number of attendees grew. At one time, there were 12 round tables set up each week and meals were served at two seatings. “In 2004, the economy was such that we had whole families,” Straughn said.
Gift to community
“It’s our gift to the community,” Straughn added. This is the first year she is not working in the kitchen every Wednesday.
The number of diners fluctuates each week from 15 to 50. Wheelchair-bound Paula Starner, a 52-year member of the Community Church of Oakhurst which is now The New Community United Methodist Church, with her caregiver daughter, Julia Starner, attends the meals frequently.
Rory Ramos has been coming to the meals for three or four years. She grew up in North Fork and came with her husband, Angel, from Fresno. “We have our own camp and we have permission from the property owner,” she explained of their living arrangements. Their dog, Devil, accompanied them sitting quietly in a stroller during the meal.
Her mother lives in Oakhurst. Both her mother and her father are disabled, Ramos said. Her sister has been trained to take care of them. Ramos and her husband receive help through the Madera County Social Services Department and have food funds available with their Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card. Angel does yard work and landscaping when he can get work.
“I’ve only been in the area for a couple of weeks so this is my second time [eating at the community meal],” Tobin Richards said. He arrived at the church’s Whittenburg Hall on his bicycle, his mode of transportation for the last three years. “I used to carry a backpack and hitchhike and hike.”
Rusty James is homeless. He especially enjoyed the lemonade and popsicles during the meal when temperatures outside registered 90+ degrees. He has lived in the area since 1963. “I like to help to clean up so I wipe the tables, vacuum, do dishes,” he said. “I can make it without [the community meal] but I like to donate.”
A trio of 20-year-olds sat at one table enjoying the meal. One, a female, explained how she used to volunteer at Mountain Christian Center serving dinner there about three years ago. A male in the group explained he’s been homeless for three years coming to the area from Mariposa. “I love sleeping outside,” he said as he whistled like a cricket.
The trio spoke of addiction, growing up in the foster system, parent alcoholism and broken homes.
After the meal, volunteers scurried about cleaning up and setting up for the next activity that would be housed in the parish hall.
Volunteer Sherri Brasher has helped with the meals about six years. Basten was chief cook for this meal explaining that she had never roasted a leg of lamb before. The success of her endeavor was evident as food disappeared from plates as those present enjoyed the meal.
Lynn Mattos also volunteered for this meal as did her twin daughters Rachel and Olivia who both attend Yosemite High School. Wasuma Elementary School students, Jordyn McCully and Jane Irion, stacked chairs after helping serve.
“It’s really fulfilling,” said Rachel. “I get to meet people I wouldn’t usually meet and I get to serve.”
“I like helping and serving people,” said Irion.
The diners this evening left via the transportation that had brought them to the meal: on foot, riding bicycles, by car.
Residents of Oakhurst Healthcare & Wellness Centre contribute
Age and fitness are not seen as barriers for those wanting to help with the Community Meals. Sharon Reeves, Activity Director for the Oakhurst Healthcare & Wellness Centre for 30 years, initiated the “A Heart to Serve” program at the local level, providing residents with an opportunity to serve others.
“[It is important] for the residents to still feel useful and be able to give back to the community ... to experience] the joy of giving ... .to serve with a heart,” Reeves said.
Even though they are wheelchair-bound, Billie Motta, 83, and Richard Champion, 88, were ready to serve a Community Meal in September. They were assisted by other volunteers, Reeves and Christy Williams, a Certified Nursing Assistant at the healthcare facility.
Motta had also prepared half the hoagy sandwiches and Champion had bagged the potato chips. A number of others who could not easily be transported had helped the healthcare center’s cafeteria staff prepare the meal that included fresh fruit and a freshly baked cookie.
“I didn’t know about the program until just two weeks ago,” Champion, a retired high school and college business instructor said. “It’s nice to have the chance to give back to people who have given us life and hope and a future.”
“If it’s for the homeless, I’ll always do it [volunteer],” said Motta. “I love doing it. That’s my best time ... giving to the homeless and other people if they’re hungry.”