As The Community Table reaches its 25th year serving meals to Eau Claire’s hungry, founders and longtime volunteers aren’t quite sure how to feel.
Many feel shock that the only soup kitchen in the Chippewa Valley is still in existence — not because the organization or the volunteers aren’t hardworking and aren’t well-intended. But rather, because the need for these free, hot, nutritious meals 365 days a year only seems to continue growing. And growing.
“I guess I feel surprised — the fact that this organization would hit 25 years never even entered my mind,” said Pete Raleigh, who has volunteered with the agency since its start in 1993 and continues to work there as operations manager. “I always was just trying to help people get jobs so that they didn’t need our help. But unfortunately, we have to look at this. We can’t ignore it. Poverty is growing in Eau Claire.”
It was a sentiment echoed again and again by the organization’s founders, longtime volunteers and patrons as the 25th anniversary celebration approaches on Thursday.
But another common thread as they looked back on the years since The Community Table was established? The giving, generous nature of the Eau Claire community that has prevailed through the decades.
“I never thought it would grow to be so successful — Really, I was kind of hoping the need wouldn’t be there,” said Mary Ann Minton, one of the founders of The Community Table. “But I’m glad that people are getting help. I’m glad that The Community Table is still there to make people feel welcome.”
Jean Minnich of Eau Claire said she’s been coming to The Community Table almost every day for so long that she can’t remember. Eventually, she became a volunteer, having been inspired by the community she found there.
“I came to Eau Claire with nothing,” Minnich said. “A lot of people helped me get to where I am now, so I’m giving it back.”
Jason Scot DeLoach, who moved to Eau Claire about three years ago from Savannah, Ga., said he’s glad he’s always able to get a meal at The Community Table from when he was homeless to now. Though he is now housed, he continues to struggle.
“They don’t have anything for homeless people in Georgia, except a place for you to pitch your tent under a bridge,” DeLoach said. “This is a real giving city.”
It all began with a Voice of the People letter to the Leader-Telegram in spring 1993. Written by Buffy Mooney, the letter addressed the need for a soup kitchen or similar service in Eau Claire.
Back then, Eau Claire’s homeless, hungry or otherwise struggling had no- where to turn, Kaye Senn, another founder of The Community Table, recalled.
Not long after the letter was published, local church leaders and other concerned community members gathered to address the issue in the basement of Unitarian Universalist Congregation.
“That Voice of the People letter brought this issue to light,” Senn said. “From that came out the people that were really interested in wanting to put in the time to put something together and address it.”
What emerged was The Community Table, which served its first meal after a couple of months of planning in July 1993. The agency served one meal a week in the beginning, steadily growing as the years went on.
“Everybody was very generous and compassionate about helping out,” Minton said. “It was time-consuming, but it was easy to get going because everyone wanted to make a difference.”
The grass-roots group eventually became a nonprofit, moving out of a church into several of their own buildings across town before landing on Putnam Street in 2010.
“You always hope that it’s not a need,” Senn said. “But it’s gotten to be more of a need as the years have passed, and it’s wonderful to see what it’s expanded to today — not only the facility, but the people that are still committed to helping their neighbors.”
More than two decades since its start, the organization continues with largely the same goals, all with the help of volunteers, said executive director Michelle Koehn.
The nonprofit currently makes about 150 or more meals a day, she said. The folks they serve come from a variety of backgrounds — some are homeless, some are housed but struggle to put food on the table.
Although Raleigh has been volunteering since The Community Table’s start, he said he’s been astounded by how the need only continues to grow.
According to 2016 attendance findings, 88 percent of the patrons The Community Table serves report having extremely low income or no income at all. About 48 percent of their guests have a disability, and the guests’ average age is 54.
And that’s nothing compared with the people who remain unaware of the services provided at The Community Table, Raleigh said.
“We may be serving 150 meals,” he said. “But we’re only scratching the surface.”
Spirit of giving
Since Koehn moved back to Eau Claire and took over the director position nearly a year ago, she’s been amazed by the spirit of giving in the community.
The organization is mostly funded by donations from businesses, churches and individuals, who often choose to remain anonymous. In addition, it is ran almost entirely by volunteers who prepare and distribute food nightly.
“The Community Table, it’s not one person,” she said. “It truly is a community-led endeavor. One person isn’t more instrumental than the other, and I think that’s the cool part of this organization — we need to have so many bodies in here to deliver and serve our mission.”
And it’s not just about the food. As a volunteer, Raleigh said he often ends up getting to know frequent patrons, befriending them and helping them however he can.
He’s helped many get jobs and became a reference for them on their resumes. He’s become mentors for children and young adults.
“I’ve done it all,” he said.
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