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Lebanon Soup Kitchen makes plans for a merry Christmas
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Lebanon Soup Kitchen makes plans for a merry Christmas

The Lebanon Soup Kitchen celebrated 30 years of community service in 2019. During those commemorations, leaders estimated that the organization had served more than 650,000 meals.

That experience was desperately needed in 2020. Following a year of celebration, this has been a year of challenges. It began in March when social distancing rules first went into effect and the soup kitchen switched from serving meals in its space at the Lebanon First Christian Church to providing takeout service.

Just as the organization was making this switch, tragedy struck. Randy Peterson, the soup kitchen’s manager died unexpectedly on May 12. He was 51.

Volunteers at the non-profit mourned his loss while trying to maintain the service schedule.

Mike Baker, the chair of the Lebanon Soup Kitchen’s board of directors, said the team found a way to get the job done.

“What is so amazing is, the Lebanon community and the volunteers ... we didn’t miss a single meal that was scheduled,” Baker said. “I think that is a testament to the many years the soup kitchen has been in operation and they just have good leadership. We really feel blessed for the way things have gone in the midst of what is a really difficult situation.”

Christine Strawn, 56, was hired as the new manager in July. Strawn spent the last five years working at the Edward C. Allworth Veterans’ Home as one of the recreation assistants.

Strawn said one of her co-workers at the veterans’ home, Mechelle Brassfield, has strong ties to the soup kitchen. After Peterson’s passing, Brassfield told Strawn the group was seeking a new full-time manager.

Strawn was immediately interested.

“I love to cook, for one. That was part of my activities program with the veterans, I used to cook them big dinners once or twice a month,” Strawn said.

She also has experience with non-profit organizations, having helped create the local chapter of Operation Homefront and also working with a non-profit group assisting families in the Oregon Army National Guard.

And the timing was right. She loved her colleagues and the residents at the veterans’ home, but the restrictions which were required due to COVID-19 made it impossible to keep up the usual schedule of events.

“The COVID whole thing, emotionally, took its toll on me. My body was wearing out. It’s pretty strenuous work. I was ready for a change, I needed a change,” Strawn said.

She has helped the soup kitchen keep meet the needs of the community during this demanding year. The kitchen serves approximately 100 hot meals at each of its three weekly service times on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Each guest is also given a brown-bag meal to take out as well.

“Every person is leaving here with two meals, basically,” Strawn said.

The social distancing rules not only prevent the soup kitchen from operating its dining hall, but also limit how many volunteers can help out at the kitchen at any one time.

“I can’t utilize as many volunteers. We have the spacing, the distancing, all that we have to do.

I had tons of phone calls coming in, people wanting to volunteer and I couldn’t schedule them all,” Strawn said.

She recruited a volunteer coordinator to help set up a service schedule. Mary Trumble, a student at Western University of Health Sciences, College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific-Northwest (COMP-NW), took over that role.

“We found the perfect gal. She’s been remarkable. I think she’s going to be a huge asset,” Strawn said.

The Lebanon Soup Kitchen got a boost during the summer when it learned it was one of four local organizations which were receiving grant funding from the Portland-based Heatherington Foundation for Innovation and Education in Health Care.

The Lebanon Soup Kitchen was awarded a $20,000 grant to help meet the increased demand caused by COVID-19.

“It was very helpful,” Baker said. “We knew we had a bit of a cushion and we could do whatever was necessary.”

He said the soup kitchen had to purchase more supplies so it could offer takeout and meet all of the social distancing and safety requirements. For example, the organization now uses between 300 and 400 clamshell containers a week to send meals home with the guests.

While the Lebanon Soup Kitchen has continued to meet its mission, providing takeout is simply not as meaningful for guests as providing a common dining experience.

“We have always known that one of the primary services we offer is a safe place for people to gather and share a meal together. You have lots of friendships that develop over that,” Baker said.

That experience is important every day and is magnified during the holidays. On Christmas, the soup kitchen will provide takeout meals, but it will not be the same as eating together.

“They’re missing the socialization, really they are. I’ve had a lot of people really sad, broken-hearted that we can’t do the Christmas program we usually do. My solution to that was to fill stockings and hand out a stocking with every meal this Christmas,” Strawn said. “That was the only way I could think of to come up with some Christmas cheer and make it a special day.”

The Lebanon Soup Kitchen sought donations for the project on Facebook and the community responded. Volunteers came in to help fill the stockings and students from COMP-NW made up special stockings for children.

Strawn expects to pass out about 150 stockings with the Christmas meal.

“I thought that was a wonderful idea Christine came up with,” Baker said.

Both Strawn and Baker look forward to a future when the Lebanon Soup Kitchen can resume its regular operations, although Strawn jokes that she will be forced to re-learn how to do her job.

“I’m looking forward to that. I told all the volunteers that trained me, ‘You know, you’re going to have to re-do this.’ All I know is the COVID procedures right now. I can’t wait for it to open up so I can talk to people and get to know people better, right down to the volunteers,” Strawn said.

Les Gehrett's memorable stories from 2020

These five stories share the common theme of people working together to make the world a better place. Some of the stories look back at past events while others show people working to adapt to this very difficult year.

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