Whitney Tate of Altoona ate her meal with her 3-month-old daughter Octvia Tate at the Community Table in Eau Claire on September 7, 2018. View more photos at LeaderTelegramPhotos.com.

As I think back on my first couple of weeks returned to the Leader-Telegram as a newly minted full-time reporter, what stands out to me is one important, beautiful reminder of just how essential local newspapers are to their communities — and forever will be.

It was a typical Friday — as any journalist is likely well aware, Fridays are a scramble, as the newsroom prepares for our weekend papers. I was no exception, spending the day hammering out a Saturday story in honor of The Community Table’s 25th anniversary as the only soup kitchen in the Chippewa Valley. 

Then, I stumbled on something I did not expect.

As I was glancing through a timeline of The Community Table, I noticed it all started with the Leader-Telegram in a Voice of the People article written by Eau Claire local Buffy Mooney. In the letter, he addressed the need for a soup kitchen or similar facility in the community. Fellow reporters and my editors, of course, knew Mooney, and knew that at that time he was struggling with homelessness himself.

In a phone interview just minutes later, Kaye Senn, a founder of The Community Table back in 1993, recalled that time well — when Eau Claire’s homeless, hungry or otherwise struggling had nowhere to turn. And that all changed with one little letter published in the local newspaper.

“The Voice of the People is what brought all this to light,” Senn told me. “From that came the people that were really interested in wanting to put in the time to address this issue.” 

Not long after the letter was published, local church leaders and other concerned community members including Senn gathered to address the issue in the basement of Unitarian Universalist Congregation. A few months later, The Community Table was born.

It started small with one meal per week served in the basement of a church, to eventually expanding to serving meals every day of the week, all year long. Now, about 150 people each day — sometimes more — head to the organization on Putnam Street for a free, hot, nutritious meal they otherwise may not have access to.

Had there not been a Leader-Telegram in Eau Claire — or any other newspaper to publish that letter — there may not have been The Community Table. To me, that is just one striking example of why local newspapers are essential to any society, no matter its size. We have always needed, and will always need, our small town newspapers.

As I spoke to several patrons at The Community Table that Friday afternoon, many expressed to me how grateful they were, for not just the meal, but the community and fellowship they found within the organization.

One woman, Jean Minnich, told me of how her family struggled throughout her childhood to make ends meet. They moved all over the country before landing in Eau Claire, and she said it was here — Eau Claire and organizations like The Community Table — that she found home.

Decades later, Minnich still eats at The Community Table and volunteers there.

“I came to Eau Claire with nothing,” Minnich said to me while eating her meal with some friends that Friday evening. “A lot of people helped me get to where I am now, so I’m giving it back.”

Although the need for a soup kitchen was not initially addressed by a journalist, this shows how much more newspapers are to their communities.

Newspapers are not just about the investigative journalism that hardworking journalists research, report and write, though that is immensely important, as I hope everyone knows.

A newspaper is also a space for community members to voice their concerns. To honor a lost loved one with an obituary. To advertise and promote events, or spread the word about other useful information. It is a publication that is truly for the people and by the people. It is a “first rough draft of history,” as former Washington Post publisher Philip L. Graham said.

Now more than ever, I can’t wait to be part of that here in the Chippewa Valley.

Contact: 715-833-9206, samantha.west@ecpc.com, on Twitter @SamanthaWest196