After chapel and classes on Wednesday, about 230 students make the less-than-a-mile trip to the First United Methodist Church on 3rd Avenue. Not for attending services, but to be served a home-cooked meal.
The church has been providing lunches to college students in its fellowship hall for the past four years. Volunteers have seen tremendous growth, particularly in this year’s attendance.
“We’re the victim of our own success,” said Jack Sykes, the chairman of the witness committee that sponsors the ministry.
When they first began serving meals, there were typically 30-40 in attendance. This year, the response has been nearly overwhelming.
“We budgeted based on last year’s attendance, which was 75-80 on average,” Sykes said. “This year, we started off with 140.”
Due to rising food costs, the church had to make a decision.
“We have two choices — either we cut back on the quality of the meal, which we don’t want to do,” Sykes said, “or we need some help.”
First United Methodist recently added a donation box to the beginning of the food line, asking for a dollar donation.
“The students that are coming seem to enjoy it. We don’t like the idea of having to ask for donations,” Sykes said. “We want to be clear on that. We don’t like it.”
Sophomore education major Joanna Schildwachter said, “I think that’s fair enough. You get a good — size meal.”
Overall, students seem to be responsive to their request for support.
“It tastes good, and the least we can do is give a dollar,” Schildwacther said.
Because the donation box has only been there a few weeks, the volunteers anticipate the word will get around in the near future.
“We think it’ll get better as we go along,” Sykes said.
There are usually 10 volunteers helping with everything from the prep work of browning 50 pounds of beef the day before, to giving students rides to and from campus, to cleaning up afterward. Some volunteers have been a part of the ministry from the get-go, while others willingly step in when needed.
“I’m actually emergency help today,” volunteer Paul McKinley said.
The kitchen was short staffed, but other members of First United Methodist filled in the gap.
“It’s what I’m called to do; it’s part of being a church,” McKinley said. “It’s stepping up to the plate.”
Gary Brown, who may be seen driving the bus to and from the church any given Wednesday, has been volunteering for three years.
“I think it’s a good mission,” he said. “It keeps me busy. I’m retired twice.”
Brown is equally amazed at the expansion.
“The first year we were doing sometimes 30 (or) 35, and now we’re doing 235.”
Linda Smith became a volunteer after her granddaughter started attending the university.
“(Students) like it. They’re happy,” she said. “It’s really good, and we’ve met the nicest young people.”
The church opens its doors to serve students lunch every Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Weekly menus are available through e-mail by simply signing in at the entrance.
“Everyone’s welcome. We’re getting crowded, but that’s great,” Sykes said. “We’re happy about that.”