APPLETON — When St. Therese Parish offered its vacant school activity center to Loaves & Fishes of the Fox Valley, Inc., a nondenominational Christian outreach serving free evening meals, a beautiful partnership was born.
“St. Therese is happy to welcome Loaves & Fishes. I can think of no better use for this space than to give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty,” Fr. Ryan Starks, pastor, said of the new partnership. “It is our prayer that those involved with Loaves & Fishes will quickly feel at home here and that by their presence, our parish family will be inspired by the beautiful work they do.”
Volunteers with Loaves & Fishes offer evening meals to nearly 120 people three evenings a week. For 16 years, it was housed at Trinity Lutheran Church in downtown Appleton. In 2016, Loaves & Fishes served 22,880 meals. The meals are free and the service is nondenominational.
“About a year ago, Trinity told us the church was being sold,” said Shannon Krahn, Loaves & Fishes executive director. The board of directors formed a committee and sought a new location. “A church seemed a natural fit,” she said, “and we started knocking on doors.”
Loaves & Fishes has been making it work with the Salvation Army as a temporary measure since November, but the committee kept plugging along to find a permanent solution.
The organization wanted something that was accessible to those who use the program. It wanted it to be on a bus route, and it needed space that included parking for volunteers and those who come to eat. It also needed space for its 8’ x 10’ walk-in freezer.
Volunteers come in to prepare and serve the meals, she added, so “we needed space that would be available between 11 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday.” The meal is served from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.
“We had exhausted all possibilities,” she said. Many churches wanted to help, but they had other groups that needed to use the kitchen, prohibiting the Loaves & Fishes volunteers from having enough access.
“We started looking at commercial buildings, but we operate on such a small budget,” added Krahn. “We tried the Salvation Army, which serves a noon meal every day, but there wouldn’t be enough time for our volunteers to come in and prepare the meal to serve by 5:30.”
Enter Mary Beth Nienhaus, who is a local philanthropist and a member of the Loaves & Fishes board of directors. She attended a fundraiser at St. Therese and she mentioned to Deacon Tony Abts that St. Therese’s vacant school might be a good fit for the meal program.
“He takes me to the dungeon (the downstairs activity room). You know, years ago this school housed thousands of kids. It would give us room to grow,” said Nienhaus. After a tour of the facilities, she was sold.
Some renovation is necessary to bring the kitchen up to current code and an elevator is needed to make it handicapped accessible because people need to get to a lower level. Rest rooms also will be renovated and made accessible to the handicapped. The new site has seating for 435, so there is room to grow, said Krahn.
Nienhaus stepped forward to offer a $50,000 matching grant to keep “this important mission” in operation. She had been a volunteer for Loaves & Fishes for years. “Then they asked me to be on the board. I have the funds and I’m happy to do this,” she said.
She called it a win-win for both partners. She had visited most of the downtown and southside Appleton churches in search of a new home for the meal program. “I think all the parishes in Appleton wanted to reach out to us, but St. Therese has the space. Fr. Starks wholeheartedly endorsed this venture and Deacon Abts has worked hard with us to pull it together.”
St. Therese Parish is also putting money toward the renovation, which should begin in April, said Fr. Starks and Deacon Abts.
“We’re very excited about this partnership,” Deacon Abts said. “Loaves & Fishes is right on mission for us; you know, Matthew 25 about offering food and drink to those in need. Our mission as disciples is unmistakable. It is an opportunity also for our own parishioners to get involved in service. Since the announcement was made, we’ve had people coming forward and saying they want to get involved.”
The first step is securing funding. The matching grant was a starting place for the fund drive, which it is hoped will cover the renovation. Deacon Abts said initial estimates put the project in the $150,000 to $200,000 range.
The campaign drive is called “Our Match Made in Heaven” and has a deadline of June 1, Krahn said. Financial donations may be mailed to Loaves & Fishes of the Fox Valley, P.O. Box 1562, Appleton, WI 54912-1562, or donate through loavesandfishesfv.org.