Happier at the PNA Hot Meal Program
By Victoria Poling
“You tend to take for granted that you can go to a restaurant and get served. Before COVID, we had a buffet-style self-serve table. People were afraid others would take more and they would receive less,” reflects Hot Meal Program Coordinator Susan Russell. Meeting COVID protocols changed all of that. “Now the diners are served at tables. They talk to each other and get community connection.”
As diner Gino walks by, Susan smiles to say hello, and notices that he needs new socks. Fortunately, there are plenty in stock. “I know everyone. They know me. They know I was homeless before. I wish I had had this program before when I needed it. They’re treated with dignity here. To see them happy—I knew it was possible!”
The Hot Meal Program has been growing steadily and deliberately in the services provided over the last two years. Program Director Krissie Dillin has built community connections in order to offer medical services, hygiene supplies, clothing, and dental visits. Diners are grateful for their visits to Dr. Carol and the nursing students from Seattle Pacific University. Physical therapy is now available, as well.
The program has also grown to include additional staff: Sheri LaVigne, Hot Meal Program Manager, and Dori Buttleman, Kitchen Assistant. Sheri reveals, “My passion is cooking food. That’s my love language!” She has a history of volunteering for nonprofits and working in food service.
Sheri’s introduction to people who are living unhoused in Seattle came through Seattle Veterinary Outreach, which offers vet care to pets and people who are economically marginalized. She connected with people over a shared love of animals. Through Planet Worth, Sheri also participated in making vegan meals with ingredients gleaned from farmers markets to bring to encampments along with propane, hygiene items, and clothing.
“It’s an amazing privilege to come into a well-run program and take the wheel,” Sheri notes. In her new role, she is able to both work on the meal program and spend time looking into housing options and the possibility of finding case managers.
Sheri’s joined the Meal Planning Coalition, a hub for organizations to talk about what’s working and what the needs are in their programs. She says, “we want to be deliberate in our decisions, not move too fast. We’re building on a solid base.” Susan adds, “I’m excited about Sheri’s new meal ideas, fresh energy, and the opportunity to step back. It will be less pressure for me.”
Dori Buttleman joined the Hot Meal Program just before COVID as a high school student volunteer. A friend of her mom’s volunteered and invited her along. When classes went online, giving her flexibility with her schedule, she was able to volunteer more. She is back from her first year of college and is excited to work as Hot Meal Program Kitchen Assistant. Seeing behind the scenes, she learned that there is a lot of work that goes into meal planning, finding food sources, and meeting diners’ needs.
Dori has been working with Krissie on organizing survey responses asking diners about the kinds of services and supplies they need. She said, “it’s awesome to get to know people. Many of the same folks are here as when I started a few years ago. I like that the program gives them a space to hang out and chill. And the volunteers have a community here, too.” Susan adds, “It means so much to see our diners cared for by happy volunteers.”
Our Hot Meal Program offers more than free delicious meals to neighbors in need. Our social services include free monthly medical clinics, a free clothing store, and free hygiene and first aid supplies. With your help, we can maintain and grow this vital program. We welcome new volunteers, donations, and are seeking an HMP Kitchen Assistant and Social Service Engagement Manager!
We’d also love supply donations for our free store! Shop our online wish list and ship items like hand wipes, band-aids, and tissues directly to our team, or pick them up at your favorite local store and drop them off at our Blue Building. We’d love to see you!