Since serving its first meal in January of 2016, Compassion Cafe has grown from just five people showing up for dinner to serving 300 to 400 meals every month.
Compassion Cafe offers a free meal to anyone in the community once a month. There are no forms, no requirements, just show up and enjoy a good meal with good company.
"We try and offer a well balanced nutritious meal every month," Compassion Cafe Board Member Jenny Sikes said. "A good portion of the food we serve comes from the SEMO Foodbank, but we don't get enough each month for an entire meal. We make up the difference with the funds donated from individuals and businesses."
Sikes said some of the favorite meals are the October Chili Meal which the Marcus Masonic Lodge No. 110 A.F.A.M. serves with grilled cheese sandwiches, the chicken and noodles night, spaghetti, ham and potatoes, and of course the Thanksgiving meal. She said, desserts are usually a hit with iced blueberry muffins, no bake cookies, or fresh baked cookies.
Compassion Cafe has always been a sit-down, hot meal where everyone had a chance to be together and socialize. When COVID-19 began to shut things down in early 2020, the volunteers had to shift gears and find a new way to help.
"It was very important, and a challenge we had to face," Compassion Cafe Board Member Kristen Starkey said. "We have not served an in-person, dine-in meal since February of 2020. Once dine in meals stopped, we ceased all services in March and April of 2020. Since then, our board and volunteers have adjusted to find ways to serve our community."
Starkey said, they partnered with Proffer Produce to receive monthly produce boxes, received meal sponsorships from the Pig BBQ and Subway to provide to go meals, they continued to receive food from the SEMO Food bank, and all of that allowed Compassion Cafe to distribute food in a to go format to the community.
"We are considered a Community Soup Kitchen, but during the pandemic things changed for us and we adjusted," Starkey said. "We are happy to announce that on Sept. 18 we'll be back to in-person, dine-in and to go meals at the middle school from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m."
Please note the time change from a dinner meal to lunch time.
Starkey said they are going to try out the time change and will also be offering to go meals for guests to enjoy an additional meal later.
As volunteers distributed the food bundles, July 13, outside of the Fredericktown Church of Christ, Starkey could be seen going car to car visiting with everyone and gleefully telling them in-person meals would return in September. It was hard to tell who was more excited the volunteers or the community.
"One of my favorite things about the cafe is all the people," Starkey said. "The volunteers and all the community members we get to see and visit with each month is a lot of fun. I love seeing all the smiling faces, hearing the laughter that comes when everyone is visiting and just being together."
Starkey said Compassion Cafe was born through much thought and prayer about feeding the hungry in our county, particularly the children. She said, since that time, they have recognized the need to serve all ages.
"I have no doubt that Compassion Cafe would not be here if the Lord wasn't in it, so I take it day by day and seek him for direction," Starkey said. "He leads us in our mission and we are all the hands and feet."
"Through the years we have had the opportunity to partner with other volunteer groups such as His Hands and Feet Ministry, Eagles Ladies Auxilary, and Fredericktown School's Catpack program as well as many others to meet the need of individuals and families in our community," Sikes said. "When we first began this mission, we had not imagined that being an opportunity."
There are many working parts to make the monthly meal possible from coordinating deliveries, organizing meals, volunteers, donations, storing food and so many little things you may not think about such as disposal of boxes.
Compassion Cafe is always seeking monthly meal sponsorship from the community. Anyone wishing to sponsor a meal can contact Starkey at 573-783-1400, Sikes at 573-944-1707 or Shoney Williams at 573-561-4457.
"There is no one way to donate," Sikes said. "We have individuals donate what they can, like plastic napkins for a meal and then some donate ingredients for the dessert for the meal. Some businesses and families make a monthly donation and some organizations come bring all ingredients and prepare the meal themselves. We have even had restaurants donate an entire meal. "
Starkey said Compassion Cafe also works with the SEMO Food Bank and receives supplemental ingredients on a monthly basis which helps toward the meals.
"The success of Compassion Cafe comes down to having a wonderful community committed to volunteering all for the same cause and love of our fellow citizens," Sikes said.
Sikes said, one important thing to remember is the meal has to be prepared in a commercial kitchen and certain rules have to be followed to ensure everything is safe. This means desserts or meal items can not be prepared at home and brought in for the meal.
If you would like to volunteer to help cook, serve or clean during the meal, you can contact Williams. Compassion Cafe is actively seeking volunteers for the September in person meal. Organizers like to have around 20 volunteers.
"If we have more, we always find something for them to help with,"Starkey said. "We encourage our volunteers to take time and visit with our guests. We have seen over the years it is more than serving a meal. It's building relationships with community members and enjoying each other's company."
Starkey said she can not express her appreciation enough to the many community members and organizations that make it possible for Compassion Cafe to continue serving into its sixth year.
"Thank you to the Fredericktown Church of Christ for helping store food we receive from the SEMO Foodbank," Starkey said. "This church contacted us early in our mission and said they wanted to help. They offered us this space and it's been a huge blessing in helping us serve our community. Danny Wagganer is the contact, and he is so great to work with."
Starkey said Jennifer Penuel from Madison Medical Center helps create the monthly flyers and there are so many organizations in town who help by spreading the word and posting it at their businesses and churches.
"There are a lot of people behind the scenes who do a lot to help serve in this mission," Starkey said. "We are excited to see everyone in person on Sept. 18 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Kelly A. Burlison Middle School."
Victoria Kemper is a reporter for the Democrat News. She can be reached at 573-783-3366 or at firstname.lastname@example.org