By Celine Klosterman
NEWTON — With a new outreach effort, Sacred Heart Parish aims to satisfy area residents’ hunger for more than just food.
In preparing and serving a free dinner each month, Catholics hope to help fulfill a need for companionship and community as well.
“We recognize there are different kinds of hunger. Sometimes, people just need someone to eat with and talk with once in awhile,” Shirley Dont said.
That’s one reason she worked to start a community, free-meal ministry at her parish, which served about 60 people during its first dinner last month at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Newton. That church and Sacred Heart are among local congregations taking turns providing dinner every Wednesday. Beginning in August, they will serve meals at First United Methodist Church in Newton.
About a dozen Catholics have volunteered to help buy, cook and serve food and clean up after each dinner. Donations and a $1,800 grant funded from the 2011 Operation Rice Bowl Lenten campaign in the Diocese of Davenport are covering volunteers’ expenses.
Sacred Heart plans to invite representatives of social service agencies to the meals to speak with guests individually as needed, said Carolyn Sullivan. She began coordinating the parish’s effort earlier this month after Dont stepped down for health reasons.
“We’re trying to respond to the Bible’s message of reaching out to others,” Sullivan said. “We may be able to help people who think they’re alone. Just knowing somebody cares can go a long way.”
The outreach effort is needed especially during a lackluster economy, Dont said. “Jasper County is hurting a lot.” The county hasn’t fully recovered since Newton’s Maytag plant — once a major source of employment in the town — closed in 2007, said Kathy Hammerly, Sacred Heart’s stewardship coordinator. Fourteen percent of Jasper County’s population is food insecure, meaning residents often go without meals, according to a “Map the Meal Gap” report released this year by the food-bank network Feeding America.
Growing up shortly after the Great Depression, Dont saw firsthand the impact of hunger. “When I was little, my mom only ate every other day so there’d be enough food to feed me.”
The Sacred Heart parishioner doesn’t want other people — like a couple she met during last month’s free meal — to endure similar hardship. The wife had earned two academic degrees, Dont said, but was laid off when her employer’s company was sold.
But Dont’s primary motivation was Matthew 25:35: “For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me.”
“That’s where all this comes from,” she said.