Once a month the comfort of warm meat and vegetable stew makes Tuesday night a little bit better for the homeless and those having a hard time feeding their families in Bellingham.
Mary Elenbaas and her husband, Lloyd, first started cooking the stew about 8 years ago when they had leftover potatoes from Lloyd's farm. The two wanted to make sure the extras went to a good place.
The couple got a group together at their church, North County Christ the King in Lynden, and started regularly cooking up the fare. They've served the meals through various outreach programs, including Church on the Street. The group now serves its stew the second Tuesday of each month at First Baptist Church in Bellingham, which has a different group prepare and serve meals each week.
When they asked the folks at First Baptist Church if they should switch up the menu after a few months, the answer was a resounding no.
"We got a lot of comments like, 'This is like what we used to have at Grandma's house,'" Lloyd says.
As a group of seven or eight gathered in the church kitchen on Dec. 9, even the newest volunteer quickly fell into the rhythm of the group, working like a well-oiled machine to prepare the meal for the next night.
Mary, chopping onions, quickly took a break to show the new volunteer what size to dice up the potatoes.
"The reason I like them chopped small is that some of the people we feed don't have teeth," Mary explained. "And they're easier to cook in small chunks."
The group measured the chopped veggies in pitchers, mixing potatoes, carrots, peas and onions in several chafing dishes. One volunteer manned a giant pot of gravy on the stove while others prepped a giant plastic bucket for mixing the hot gravy and carefully portioned vegetables.
Though stew is always on the menu, the actual ingredients vary from week to week, depending on what has been donated in the past few days. Sometimes ground beef and beef gravy are paired with potatoes and carrots, other times turkey, green beans and other veggies make it into the mix.
The group usually tries to prepare a fresh salad and dessert each time they cook, Mary says. They feed close to 150 people in about an hour.
One thing the group never seems to be short of is donations, Mary says.
"This community is so generous and so giving," she says. "We're so lucky we don't go without."
DeWaard and Bode donated a large freezer to the group to store the food in, and they keep it in the back room of the church kitchen, which they use for free, Mary says. The church also grows fresh vegetables in "God's Garden" and donates some of them for spring and summertime meals.
"I feel like if people want to help, they'll come forward," Mary says.
For some things, the volunteers do spend some of their own money. For instance, Mary, Lloyd, or one of the other helpers usually picks up fresh lettuce, which is hard to come by, at a local grocery store, but they're quick to say the few dollars spent on ingredients is not a burden.
"It's really not that expensive," Mary says. "We'll buy it ourselves or people donate gift cards every now and then. Tonight I bought potatoes."
After the crew wraps up the trays full of food, they leave them overnight in the fridge for Mary to come in the next day and cook. It's a short walk for Mary from her store, Calico Country, to the church kitchen. Around 2:30 p.m. she pops the trays in the oven and once 4:30 rolls around, the hot food is put in borrowed, insulated containers for the drive to Bellingham, and then it's on to the best part: serving the food.
"My favorite part is to go serve it," Mary says. "The people there are so appreciative."
Mary says she tries to walk around and chat with those who come and enjoy the meals.
At one of the recent meals, a man walked up to her and handed her a note written on a napkin. The note thanked the group for the delicious food and said, "You warm my heart and make all the difference in my day."
"We get more blessed than they do, because it's so uplifting to see them happy," Mary says.
Contact Samantha Wohlfeil at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-756-2803.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
The Bellingham Herald salutes Whatcom County people who help make our community a great place to live with our annual Ten Who Cared series. If you have a suggestion for an organization we should salute next year, please email email@example.com.