Eau Claire’s homeless population and others down on their luck have access to more food, thanks to a chance conversation and a willingness to help.

Earlier this year Bloomer resident Mike Reetz spoke with a woman who told him about a program elsewhere in the U.S. in which people donated money to pay for pizzas to feed people in need. Having learned about the plight of a growing number of homeless people in Eau Claire, Reetz decided to attempt to mirror that effort here.

Reetz subsequently contacted a Pizza Plus employee who directed him to the restaurant’s owner, Benny Haas. Haas liked Reetz’s idea, dubbed Pizza it Forward, and decided to make pizza available at his restaurant for people in need of a meal. 

Reetz then approached members of the church he attends, Saving Grace Lutheran Church in Eau Claire, and the congregation quickly raised more than $200 to get the meal program off the ground. The restaurant began serving pizza to people in need about a month ago. Each pizza meal consists of two slices and can be eaten at the restaurant or taken out. Donors spend $3 for each meal.

“It was heartening to see people so supportive of this,” Reetz said, noting he hopes donations to the program placed in a collection jar at Pizza Plus will sustain Pizza it Forward. “I have to give (Pizza Plus) a lot of credit. Some people prefer not to acknowledge the homeless people downtown. But (Haas) is willing to open up his doors to them.” 

Reetz deflected credit for Pizza it Forward to the woman who gave him the idea. He said he has tried to locate her since but has been unable to do so. 

“I like to think she was an angel who gave me this really good idea,” he said. “I felt compelled to take it and run with it.”

Haas said he felt similarly when he was approached about the idea. 

“These people are part of our community,” he said, noting typically a few people each day stop in for pizza meals. “If we can help somebody who needs it, that is something we want to do.”

Grateful eaters

Pizza it Forward organizers said the effort isn’t well-known, but some among Eau Claire’s homeless population and others struggling financially said they’re thankful for the effort. Shortly after 11 a.m. Thursday Bob Stage and Leonardo Agramonte showed up at Pizza Plus to order pizza to go. They chatted with a friendly Pizza Plus employee who handed them slices of pizza in Styrofoam containers.

“This is really nice,” Stage, 47, said of the pizza meal. “Anything people do to help people who need it is really appreciated.”

Agramonte, 56, was similarly grateful. “Any time someone cares about you it feels good,” he said. 

Stage knows firsthand what it’s like to go without meals. He has bounced in and out of homelessness for the past six years since losing his job as a machinist, living with his parents, friends and others as well as spending about a year at the Sojourner House homeless shelter in Eau Claire. He’s spent frigid winter nights under bridges and in a cave along the Eau Claire River.

“Sleeping outside is tough,” he said. “But it’s something you adapt to.” 

In recent years Stage has worked a variety of jobs through temporary services and landed a full-time job in Eleva before he was laid off when using his hands became difficult. He said he subsequently was diagnosed with a disease that adversely impacts his muscles. He has filed for Social Security disability payments and is awaiting a decision about whether he will qualify for that program and receive monthly checks. These days he lives in an Eleva apartment but said he’s at risk of being on the streets by the end of this month. 

“Now it looks like I’ll be out on the streets again,” he said.

Homeless people and others have access to daily meals at The Community Table, and twice each week Positive Avenues, a mental health drop-in center near Banbury Place in downtown Eau Claire, offers noontime meals. But not all people who need those meals can access them at the times they are offered. Reetz wants to help as many of those people as possible. 

“I just want to make more people aware of this program because it seems like the need is there,” he said. 

Emerson can be reached at 175-830-5911, 800-236-7077 or julian.emerson@ecpc.com