For some, it’s an opportunity to get dressed up. For others, a chance to give back. And for others still, it is a nice, hot meal at the end of the month when money is tight.
Whatever the reason, on the last Friday of each month a group gathers at Grass Valley United Methodist Church to share in a dinner experience that is worthwhile to all.
For more than a decade, a dedicated group of volunteers has organized the monthly Last Friday Suppers at the church, including providing the food and supplies necessary to feed 40 to 60 people. The meals are for those in need — the homeless, hungry and seniors wanting to get out and be social, said volunteer coordinator Susie Ernst.
For Ernst and others, the monthly gathering is about more than just a free meal, it’s about providing a meaningful experience. Tables are laid out with place settings for eight, decor changes by the month, the meals are plated and served to guests at their seats, and when possible, entertainment is provided.
“It gives them a sense of dignity,” Ernst said.
Formed by Tom and Thelma Stade in 2001, the initial idea for Last Friday Suppers was to give a Thanksgiving dinner for those with no place to go, Ernst explained.
It morphed into a free monthly dinner to feed those in need.
The need, Ernst was surprised to learn, meant different things to different people. For example, there are seniors who get dressed up each month to attend the Last Friday Supper, which has become a regular social occasion for them.
“I see a huge variety of people going to this supper. I see that it is definitely serving a need in the community,” said Hospitality House Executive Director Cindy Maple of the dinners.
Gerry Gaynor, or “chef” as he is known around the Grass Valley United Methodist kitchen, has volunteered to cook the Last Friday Suppers for the past six years. His wife read about the group needing help in The Union and thought it would be a good thing for them to do, he said.
The retiree enjoys being able to use some of his time to make a difference for folks year-round and also get to work with a great team of volunteers.
“It’s just a good feeling all the way around,” he said.
Once, when attendance started to fall, Gaynor said he spoke with the pastor at the church about whether they should keep the dinners going, when the woman kindly pointed out the team of 20-plus volunteers.
“They get as much out of this as the guests do,” he said.
At last year’s Thanksgiving dinner, for example, Gaynor had a young woman approach him with a child in tow.
She reached up and placed 41 cents in his hand, saying she wished she had more to give.
“It just might have been $1,000, to tell you the truth,” Gaynor said of his reaction to the gesture.
So each month he’s there, along with a host of other volunteers, including his wife Carol, who decorates the tables each month around a theme, and alongside members of local Boy Scout Troop 855, who serve the food to guests and help clean up.
A majority of the food, money and resources has come directly from the volunteers all these years, with a few donations.
Gaynor makes the most of his food budget to create each meal, which, in turn, helps guests stretch their monthly grocery budgets to get them through one more day with little or no food.
With the other organizations in town that also help feed those in need throughout the month, the hope is that it’s enough.
“Between all of us, we’re able to help these folks,” Gaynor said.
At the December dinner, which was offered in advance of Christmas, harp music from Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital’s Comprehensive Cancer Center program helped set a festive mood for diners. Providing entertainment at the dinners is an ongoing need for the Last Friday Suppers, said Ernst, who’s even put her grandson to work on the piano.
There is always a need for support, as well. The group has a dedicated core of volunteers but could use people and donations to continue the dinners.
“If anybody feels it’s part of their heart or their mission, give me a call,” Ernst said.
Food gets donated on occasion, but there is an ongoing need for funds to support the year-round venture.
There is a fund at the Grass Valley United Methodist Church set up for the Last Friday Suppers.
“It’s such a worthwhile organization, and the need is there,” Ernst said.
“It’s just great to be able to see your money at work.
“We see people coming up to the kitchen door to compliment the chef. It’s wonderful, it really is.”
For more about the Last Friday Suppers or to help, call Ernst at 530-272-1946.
Features Editor Brett Bentley can be reached at email@example.com or by calling 530-477-4219.