It’s only fitting that Utah’s Place, the brand new homeless shelter opened by Hospitality House late last year, has decided to name its kitchen after longtime volunteer Mary Liebke.
Liebke has organized the volunteers who served lunch to guests for the past eight years when the shelter used a nomadic model and rotated among a number of local faith groups.
“She’s been a gift,” said Hospitality House Executive Director Cindy Maple. “Mary has been with us from day one and before — she was instrumental in getting Grass Valley Methodist Church on board as a host and food provider, getting the Lunch Bunch going and coordinating dozens of volunteers.”
Liebke calls herself a “background person” and is distinctly uncomfortable when it comes to receiving any recognition for what she does.
“The only reason they honored me is because I organize this, but I was only able to (do so) because of the fantastic people who volunteered their time and their food and their love,” Liebke said. “I also have to express my gratefulness to Cindy and Joanna (Robinson) — it’s not been easy.”
Liebke said she stepped out of her comfort zone when she first began volunteering for Hospitality House.
Her work with the Lunch Bunch was a slow evolution through several temporary spaces, she said. Initially, the organization’s “welcome center” was at the Unitarian Church, then moved into an apartment across from Memorial Park, Liebke said,
“There was a kitchen, but no pans and no food,” she said. “So I took tea kettles over and we were able to give the guests tea.”
Eventually, some of the guests started bringing simple items like tortillas and cheese to cook, but Liebke said the space wasn’t really set up to cook.
“I started getting donations … so the board decided, I could get blood out of a turnip, that I could get these donations, so they put me in charge,” Liebke said.
The welcome center eventually moved to a cottage on Church Street, where there was a kitchen, but no stove.
“We just rounded up volunteers who loved to cook,” Liebke said. “They started bringing in food, and so I became the organizer of the Lunch Bunch. I probably had 60 or 70 people on my email list.”
Then, Liebke said, volunteer Rosann Mackey started organizing dinner groups so that the guests were getting a small breakfast, lunches from the Lunch Bunch and dinner, as well.
“Many of those folks were with me for most of those eight years,” Liebke said. “Some stuck through the whole time, others came and went. We never missed one lunch in all those years. I would put out a call for help and someone always stepped up.”
Now that Utah’s Place is open, the practice of serving lunch has been discontinued — although small breakfasts and sack lunches are being distributed.
Liebke now organizes the dinner brigade, said co-founder Joanna Robinson.
“I took the churches that were working with us, they are still helping us, but now … they come over to Utah’s Place where we have a fantastic kitchen, but they have to prepare (the food) and cook it there,” Liebke said.
More than two dozen groups provide dinner on a rotating basis, including four former Lunch Bunch groups, a number of churches, Grass Valley Charter School, Telestream, and Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital.
“We provide food 365 days a year,” Liebke said. “We only missed one night this last month because the oven wasn’t working — we ran out and got pizza.”
The transition was difficult for some of the groups, she said, adding, “We’ve got it locked in now.”
Hospitality House has applied for CDBG funding to hire a kitchen manager, as well as funds to supplement the food budget and to start a culinary job-training program, Maple said. Liebke continues to coordinate the scheduling, as well as organizing and ordering food supplies.
She also handles any donations of food, which she noted has to be prepared in a commercial kitchen.
“She truly inspires people with her dedication,” Maple said. “I think everybody’s committed, but she’s just priceless, so unselfish and giving.”
To contact City Editor Liz Kellar, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4229.