‘Willing Workers’ feed the hungry for 40 years

Members of the St. Wenceslaus Willing Workers volunteer with the Iowa City Free Lunch Program earlier this year.

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
IOWA CITY — On the fourth Monday of each month, volunteers from St. Wenceslaus Parish lovingly prepare and serve meals to persons experiencing food insecurity.

The St. Wenceslaus Willing Workers, so named by longtime parishioner Marilyn Jensen, have been volunteering with the Iowa City Free Lunch Program for about 40 years. They are among the longest-serving volunteer groups, lunch program co-director Kai Kiser told The Catholic Messenger.

“We try to see the face of Christ in each person we serve,” said longtime ‘Willing Worker’ Mary Anderson. “We see people with small children, those with physical and mental disabilities, people traveling through and elderly folks.”

The lunch program provides free meals from noon to 1 p.m. six days a week, no questions asked, at its South Gilbert Street location. The program relies on 30 different religious, student, neighborhood and social groups in the community taking turns to prepare and serve meals. Last year, these groups helped serve 34,000 meals. “Volunteers bring a spirit of caring and compassion to our program as the people we serve are treated as guests,” Kiser said. “We come together knowing that we’re all deeply connected and dependent on one another, no matter our current circumstances.”


Willing Workers leader Jackie Simpson said about 15 St. Wenceslaus parishioners volunteer each month. Tasks include donating food, cooking, serving and cleaning up. The parish sets aside $125 each month for food purchases and parishioners donate the rest. This giving of “time, talent and treasure” makes it possible for volunteers to provide two home-cooked entrees, plus a variety of sides and desserts, she said. “You see the light in (patrons’) eyes when they see all the food on the table and know they have a choice in it.”

Meatloaf is a favorite of the patrons, who also look forward to “hamburger and hot dog day” in the summer, Simpson said. Willing Workers also provide sandwiches to go for patrons.

The St. Wenceslaus group serves about 140-160 patrons during its time slot, she said. Volunteers primarily serve adults in the winter months; in the summer, they serve more families and kids. Simpson estimates that 20-30% of patrons are homeless. “The rest are people with food insecurity, low incomes or disabilities that need help getting through the day.”

Parishioner Kathy Holeton assists with cooking and preparing food items, serving and cleaning up. When she joined the Willing Workers about 20 years ago, she wasn’t sure what to expect. “I’d never dealt directly with the homeless population or those in need of a good meal,” she recalled. She quickly learned that many patrons needed a friend as much as they needed a meal. “I enjoy helping out. It puts one’s life in perspective,” she said.

“People really appreciate what you do for them,” Simpson said. Two regular patrons help clean up each day as a way to give back. “You’re going to have a better day if you don’t have to worry about where you’re going to get a meal,” she added.

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