WARNER ROBINS — Brian Browning treks the quarter of a mile from his home with the use of his cane or wheelchair to reach the soup kitchen on Davis Drive on Mondays and Fridays.
Browning, 38, who suffers from a physical deformity, said the free lunches at First United Methodist Church at 205 N. Davis Drive and other feeding programs in the area help stretch his disability checks.
“It would be tight, but I’d make it,” Browning said of what he’d do if there was no soup kitchen. “It wouldn’t be easy though.”
Even with the program and others, Browning said he occasionally goes hungry when he runs out of food.
Meeting people such as Browning has been an eye-opener for college student Jenny Villalobos, who helped prepare and serve the food Monday and helped clean up afterward.
“So few people realize that hunger goes on all around us,” said Villalobos, 23, who’s earning a master’s degree in business administration at Oregon State University.
She and four fellow students are traveling across the country as part of a campaign to raise awareness of hunger in the U.S. The group is serving in food banks, soup kitchens and community gardens across the country after winning the Campbell’s 2010 Let’s Can Hunger challenge.
Villalobos is part of Oregon State’s Students in Free Enterprise group that made a similar swing through 15 states last year, which helped them win the national contest. Part of the financial winnings from the contest are being used to offset this year’s trip, along with some university funding, help from parents, yard sales and other fundraising activities.
This year’s trip is the first for Kimberly Pendergrass, 21, a senior, who is studying business marketing and art history. Pendergrass said she was impressed with Open Hand, a nonprofit organization in Atlanta the Oregon State group visited last week to help prepare nutritious meals for those with chronic diseases. She noted that the nonprofit also has a for-profit side for nutritional meals to offset the service to low-income and homebound clients.
As she travels, Pendergrass said she’s seeing a need for organizations to work together to combat hunger.
One of the strengths of the soup kitchen on Davis Drive is that it involves churches from various denominations, military groups from Robins Air Force Base and volunteers from all walks of life, organizers said.
The soup kitchen, which will celebrate 20 years of service in August, was started by Sam Guimond of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, who saw the need and asked First United Methodist if its facilities could be used, said Cynthia Parker, 76, of Warner Robins, who now coordinates the program. Parker, a member of First United Methodist, was also one of the original volunteers.
Each church or base group works the kitchen on a rotating basis, with the soup kitchen relying on monetary and food donations to operate, Parker said.
Anyone who walks in the door is served a free lunch, with more than 50 people taking advantage of the offer Monday of turkey with gravy, potatoes, corn, mixed vegetables, a salad, bread pudding and iced tea.
About 50 to 70 people are routinely served at each feeding, said Brenda Mahoney, 67, a retired medical secretary and volunteer from Sacred Heart.
Diane Summers and Rosemarie Wolfe, volunteers from First Baptist Church in Perry, had been busy folding plastic utensils into napkins before being sent home early with the arrival of the student volunteers from Oregon.
“We like volunteering,” Summers said. “We like doing things for other people.”
Wolfe added, “You should always give back to the community.”
Sometimes children serve as volunteers, Parker said, because parents want them to see what goes on in their community.
Mel Wenner, a volunteer from the base chapel at Robins, recalled one such student who was threatening to drop out of school in the ninth grade but changed his mind after serving at the soup kitchen and hearing the stories of some of the people who came in for meals.
Villalobos said she has learned that even the smallest act of kindness can make a difference.
“Something so easy as a smile can make a person have a great day,” she said.
For more information about the students’ campaign against hunger, visit hungerinthehomeland.blogspot.com. For more information about the soup kitchen, or to volunteer, call (478) 923-3737.
To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.