The first time the Lebanon Soup Kitchen opened its doors to the public, no one came.
The second time, two people came.
The third time, more than 100 people came for dinner and the staff had to scramble to feed everyone.
That was thirty years ago and the organization has served approximately 650,000 meals since, said Nancey West, a founding board member.
The Lebanon Soup Kitchen celebrated those 30 years with a special dinner on Friday night at its home at the Lebanon First Christian Church, 170 E. Grant Street.
West remembers the discussions which led to the creation of the Lebanon Soup Kitchen in the spring of 1989. It began with an idea for the church youth group to serve a one-time meal for the community. But after a while, enthusiasm even for that seemed to grow dim.
West felt their aim should be much higher.
“My thought was, if it’s important to feed somebody, once a year is not enough,” West said.
At this time, Lebanon resident Marcy Huntsinger was feeling the same need and wrote a letter to the editor which ran in the Lebanon Express seeking support for a community organization to take up the task.
The leadership at the First Christian Church supported the goal, but knew it was too much for the congregation to support by itself. West and Huntsinger continued to work together and organized a community meeting to discuss the issue.
“It was planned that we were just going to see if there was enough support, but there was standing room only, there were so many people there,” West said. “I felt strongly that if we didn’t get it set up that night, we wouldn’t do it.”
They decided to open the kitchen within three weeks, aiming for the week of the annual Lebanon Strawberry Festival. They advertised through all of the usual outlets, but when they attempted to serve their first meal on a Wednesday night, no one came.
On Friday night, two workers from the carnival which was set up at the Strawberry Festival were the only ones to attend.
This forced the leaders of the soup kitchen to reconsider their community outreach. They realized the people who might attend a soup kitchen were not being reached. So they printed up hundreds of fliers and distributed them among the crowd at the Grand Parade that weekend.
When they opened their doors on Monday, more than 100 people were lined up.
“We were a little taken aback, a little chaotic,” West remembered.
If there had ever been any question whether the soup kitchen was needed, they had their answer.
Alongside the need, they also found the community support they needed to operate the kitchen, which has served meals every Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoon without fail since its opening.
It takes about 12 volunteers each night to serve those in attendance. At first, those volunteers worked in a very tight space in the basement of the First Christian Church. Over time, that space was expanded and is now a full-service industrial kitchen. There is a commercial gas range, a reach-in cooler, a walk-in cooler and a walk-in freezer. There is also a pantry where dry goods are stored.
Community partners have stepped up to support the kitchen, helping to supplement the food provided through the organization’s partnership with Linn Benton Food Share. West singled out Lowe’s, Walmart, Big Town Hero, the local 7-11, KFC and McDonald’s for their support.
“We could not do this without these community partners,” West said.
KJ Ullfers, a former military policeman and sheriff’s deputy, is a longtime volunteer who is currently serving as manager. He heads up the kitchen and detailed some recent contributions: hundreds of hot dogs from Lowe’s, pastries and other snacks from 7-11, and a one-ton donation from KFC.
The kitchen also receives fresh produce from the Pitchfork & Crow farm near Lebanon.
West recalled that Big Town Hero reached out to support the Soup Kitchen when it first launched and has been a partner ever since.
Over the years the volunteers discovered that food was only part of the value they were providing to those who stop in for the meals. For some, these meals are one of the primary social activities in their lives.
The meals also provide an opportunity to learn about what is going on in people’s lives, opening the door to offer further assistance as needed.
“We give the support and help they need and are willing to support,” Ullfers said.
West said there is a misconception that it is the same people who are served at every meal. While there are regulars, others may stop in for only a short while during a tough time. With assistance, some clients are able to build more stability in their lives and no longer need to come for the meals.
For its anniversary meal, Ullfers prepared pork loins cooked in a mustard and herb glaze. The name, in fact, is something of a misnomer as soup is rarely the main entree.
“On Wednesday, it was elk sloppy Joes,” Ullfers said.