Celebrating a year of serving meals at Immanuel Lutheran
The reasons people come to the weekly community dinner at Woodburn's Immanuel Lutheran Church are varied. Some need a free meal. Others seek out fellowship and friendship. Others simply look forward to one night a week they don't have to cook or do dishes.
That's what the organizers pictured when they started the weekly dinners just over one year ago.
"We wanted to get different people together for a meal," said Kristi Stokley, one of the organizers and a member of Immanuel Lutheran. "Not just people from the church, but people in the community to have a meal together."
The idea for the dinners came about after Stokley and some other church members attended a Wednesday Night Dinner at the Silverton First Christian Church. "We thought we could do something similar," Stokley said.
They served their first meal on Feb. 3, 2016, and have hosted a dinner nearly every week since. The meals caught on quickly in the community. Within a few months, what started out as a group of under 20 attendees grew to crowds of 60 to 80 people each week.
Now, many of the attendees come every week, making the community dinners an essential part of their Wednesday routines.
"It's the one day of the week we don't have to worry about fixing up dinner," said Ulises Rodriguez, a Woodburn resident who's been coming to the dinners with his wife and three children nearly every week since the dinners started last year.
Rodriguez first heard about the dinners through the Woodburn Area Chamber of Commerce, of which he's a member. Now, the dinners are part of the family's weekly routine.
"If we miss a dinner here it feels like something's off," he said.
He and his wife, Erin Rodriguez, appreciate the social aspect of the dinners. "It's a great way to meet people," Erin Rodriguez said.
Some people come as a group, like a cohort of Woodburn Estates & Golf residents who eat together each Wednesday and play cards after they've finished their meals.
Virginia Eggert, a member of the church, values the social aspect of the dinner. "It's one meal a week where I know I won't eat alone," Eggert said.
Most attendees also commented on how good the food is, and how well-balanced the meals are. Each week's meal includes an entrée, a salad, applesauce and dessert. Past entrées have included a baked potato bar, meatloaf, different kinds of stew, and casseroles.
The dinners are funded by freewill offerings by the attendees and money raised by the church's collection basket. And unlike some free meals or food banks in the area, there's no paperwork to fill out or eligibility requirements to meet. The attendees say it provides a more welcoming atmosphere than most other free meals.
"It's not a like a food bank," said Starley Fehr, a regular attendee who's volunteered with programs like Loaves and Fishes in the past. "It's more social."
With a successful first year under their belts, the organizers are looking to the future. They've learned a lot over the past year, they say, including how to license a kitchen with the state, how to register for food handlers' cards and how to estimate how much food to make each week.
They hope in the future to expand the kitchen, which would allow them to serve more people each week. They also want to partner with other churches to further expand the base of attendees.
And, they want to get the word out to more people about the dinner, which is open to the public from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the church, 1036 E. Lincoln St.
"Everyone's welcome," Stokley said. "Come and bring your friends."