Hot Meal Program Nourishes Community

Hot Meal Program Nourishes Community
By mattc

By Bill Thorness

“Hi honey, find a seat and we’ll serve you! How are you?”

Those simple words from Susan Russell personify what the PNA’s Hot Meal Program has become. The Program Coordinator’s enthusiasm toward her patrons ripples through the staff and is infused into the food and growing menu of services offered.

“I love the coffee. I love the conversation,” says one regular diner. “Love the people here.”

The program started with the desire to fight hunger and serve food to anyone who needs it, but has expanded into an array of services “because we’re meeting the needs of our neighbors, of people that are living in poverty,” says Krissie Dillin, PNA Program Director, “and they have the same needs as everyone else: be fed, have shelter, feel safe, have medical and dental. The really, really basic things.”

So along with the meal, being served at the Greenwood Senior Center on Mondays from 4 to 6 pm and at St. John’s United Lutheran Church on Tuesdays from 4 to 6 pm and Wednesdays from 11 am to 1 pm, the PNA has added numerous services to the menu: a free medical clinic operated by Lahai Health, Seattle Pacific University nursing students on site weekly, a free dental clinic once a month, clothing and hygiene items, and snacks to take away. As always, the Hot Meal Program provides a community place for people to be welcomed, sit down, and visit.

“Maybe they came because there was some really yummy chicken noodle soup,” says Krissie, “but they came back because they need to and want to connect with other humans.”

Nurse checks the blood pressure of a man in a chair outside.

A Seattle Pacific University nursing student checks blood pressure during their weekly time on site with the Hot Meal Program.

“The entrée is the entre,” agrees Dr. Carol Waymack, volunteer MD from Lahai Health, with a smile. She and other volunteer health professionals see patients in a quiet room down the corridor from the church’s fellowship hall. People “have a need for somebody to validate the importance of their existence,” she says, “to say we care about you enough that we’re willing to wash your feet, because we know you’re on them all day and they probably hurt much of the time.” Comfortable new socks are offered too.

The medical service—and the dental care being offered from a Medical Teams International RV in the parking lot once a month—are still “building visibility and trust” with the program’s clientele, says Jan Jimenez, volunteer with Lahai Health, who helps manage the free medical clinic.

Maybe it starts with support for a person who’s had their ID and insurance card stolen, “which happens to so many homeless people,” says Dr. Carol, or who is intimidated by a clinic setting, where a person who hasn’t had an opportunity to shower or wash their clothes “feels more like an outsider.” Or it’s care that comes with the acceptance of a person who might not have a supportive community to help them address mental health or addiction issues. Remember, she says, “they’re just people who need help that could have been us.”

A dentist checks the teeth of a person in their examination chair.

A Medical Teams International dentist examines teeth in the free dental clinic. 

Before visiting the doctor or the dentist—who can only administer the basics and try to steer people into the greater medical system—people generally first sit down for a meal. And what they get is food prepared with laughter and love by cooks Maha Sarhan and Bianca Cheung and other regular volunteers, overseen by Susan, the dynamo who orchestrates the restaurant-style meal.

Holiday dinners are the most popular, like the prime rib at Christmas, says Maha, but Bianca’s recent from-scratch, Asian meal, with its egg flower soup and Hainanese chicken, was a hit too.

Patrons are served individually, an evolution from cafeteria service: one volunteer brings coffee, the next takes your order, and later a third brings around packaged snacks to go. Dessert and more coffee come along too. “It’s a very different experience than standing in line for your meal,” says Krissie. “You don’t feel like you are a charity here.”

“People really appreciate it,” says Thomas Duggan, a Ballard High School student who started as a waiter to fulfill service hours a couple of years ago but stayed because “I like doing it. I like helping people. And Susan is pretty amazing.”

A woman wearing an apron holds two plates of food.

Hot Meal Program Coordinator Susan Russell

“What drives me the most is to rebuild community as a whole, with inclusion and kindness,” says Susan, who may have an internal radar more attuned to those issues, from a past that includes being homeless herself and spending a number of years selling Real Change newspapers in front of Ken’s Market.

From the warm greeting to the medical and dental services to the hot meal, the program serves up a welcoming environment. “When you walk in the door, you can bring your whole self,” adds Krissie.

The approach is validated by the diners sitting together at round tables, talking and laughing.

“Togetherness is the whole point,” says a slim, white-bearded man.

“They are thoughtful, conscientious and fair here,” says his friend, “and Susan remembers people.”

“It’s interaction!” says a longshoreman across the table with a smile. “Especially coming out of quarantine.”

Another man, standing with a to-go coffee in the sun outside the church, describes a recent situation. “I had a surprise visit from my daughter,” he says, “and I was able to bring her here for dinner, then we went for a nice walk in Woodland Park.” Such a simple opportunity, he explains, “can turn a sad, rainy day into a fellowship day.”

All photos by: Brian David Casey