Faith and food are a good mix at Joe’s Diner

| April 13, 2011 | 0 Comments

Volunteers Shanna McLaughlin, left, and Tia Pederson serve french fries at Joe’s Diner. Each has at least one other family member who volunteers. Photo by Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

A mob of grade school children gathered around a table in the Great Hall at St. Joseph in Lino Lakes April 6.

They were hungry. More than likely, they could smell the chicken nuggets and french fries being prepared in the kitchen. After an hour of religious education, they were ready for a break and some food.

A group of nine volunteers was happy to oblige. After bringing out the food, parishioners Ann Gaines and Bob Determan began dishing up the chicken nuggets. As the 100-plus kids made their way through two serving lines, they continued on to the fries station, where Shanna McLaughlin and Tia Pederson were waiting to complete the meals.

This routine has been followed nearly every Monday and Wednes­day evening since September, with parents and children eating in the Great Hall at what is called Joe’s Diner. In a mere half hour, volunteers will feed up to 175 kids and parents.

Generous response

The idea was conceived last year, when parish staff members tried to address the problem parents faced of having children in religious education classes on two different times on Wednesday nights. Classes for younger kids went from 5:30 to 6:30, while the teens had their turn at 7. Many families with kids in both sessions wondered how they could feed their children.

The light bulb went on when the staff realized that the children walked by the hall every time they went to their classes.

“We kept thinking, ‘Boy, wouldn’t it be nice if we could have a meal for these kids in the Great Hall,’” said faith formation director Steve Rob­ach. “It’s just sitting there empty and dark.”

But Robach and the other staff members who discussed the idea knew it wouldn’t be possible without volunteers. So they started asking parishioners.

When Robach asked Kevin Mc­Laughlin, he not only said yes, he went home and recruited his wife, Shanna. Then, two of their daughters, Nicole and Rachel, joined in, making them the largest family group among the volunteers. They serve on Wednesdays, while a different, and smaller, group serves on Mondays, when there is only one session of religious ed and the meal comes afterward.

“We come as a family,” Shanna said. “I taught religion for 13 years and this is the first year I’m not doing it, so I just wanted to try a different ministry. . . . I love these Wednesday nights. I like hospitality.”

It’s a welcome weekly event for people like Paul and Kelly Siler, who bring their four boys to both religious education sessions and take advantage of the meal, which is free of charge, with donations accepted.

“It’s awesome for our schedule,” Kelly said. “It allows us to eat dinner as a family because of the two times we have to go to religion. And, I don’t have to cook.”

Usually, the first volunteer to arrive is Sherri Dimke, who arrives between 2 and 2:30 each Wednes­day. She begins preparing the food and organizes the volunteers.

“I absolutely love to cook, so this was a way to share what I love to do and give back to the church at the same time,” said Sherri, whose husband, Tom, also volunteers. “I love it — wish it would have been here four or five years ago when my kids were all in these classes.

“It truly helps a lot of those families that have kids coming for both classes, the 5:30 and the 7. You have a little window to put some food in them, talk to them about their day, and send them to class.”

April 13 marked the last Joe’s Diner event of the school year. There seems little doubt it will be back up and running in September, if the volunteers are any indication.

“It’s really fun,” Shanna Mc­Laugh­lin said. “That’s the best part about it.”

Dimke said: “If Steve asks, I will do it [again] in a heartbeat. As long as they don’t have too many complaints about my cooking, I’m here.”

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Category: Featured, What Works