“When I grew up here everybody owned their own house, everybody knew their neighbors. I couldn’t do anything wrong without anyone telling about me,” said Barb Knighton.
Knighton was raised on Holland Street, right behind St. Michael’s Greek Catholic Church. She’s a third generation member of the parish.
But times, and the First Ward have changed. Noting that the demographics and economic status are different, Knighton came up with an idea. Just over a year ago, she started a community meal at St. Mike’s Recreation center.
“The hunger in the neighborhood is unbelievable,” she said,” No one should go hungry in this country.”
Every Monday night, as many as 200 people gather at 5:45 p.m. for a prayer by the pastor, Fr. Jim Dutko. Then they have a three-course meal. Each receives tickets to be served soup and salad, an entrée and then desert.
Knighton is backed by a group of volunteers that includes 20 or more people each week, mostly parishioners. But sometimes, when the school year gets going, students from SUNY Broome or Binghamton University also help out.
The menu is varied, and mostly relies on what is available from CHOW, the Community Hunger Outreach Warehouse. On a recent Monday afternoon, they were preparing a noodle dish for the entrée and deserts were being cut. Fresh fruit and vegetables plus some leafy greens were in the fridge, ready for distribution to the diners.
About three hours before serving time, parishioner Patricia Gay took a few minutes away from slicing potatoes for soup to talk about the dinner.
“It’s been great for the community,” she said. “It’s a lot of work and love put into the preparation for the food and serving the people. We don’t realize how many people are hungry.”
“I really enjoy it,” said parishioner Pauline Jreczko. “It makes me appreciate what I have. That’s what it’s all about.”
Sometimes, there are too many volunteers. “If we don’t have a job for you,” Knighton said, “I tell them it’s your job to take a plate, sit down and talk to someone.”
Knighton tries to have something other than food available each week. Clothing, snacks, health care products and toilet paper have been among the takeaway. There’s also a special table just for kids.
The community dinner is based on a simple formula that’s not too far from her First Ward roots. She likes to cook. And she’s not unlike the mothers of times gone by, keeping an eye on those in the neighborhood. But the neighbors at the dinner come from more than just the area around Clinton Street and Glenwood Avenue. They’re from all over Broome County.
“There’s no reason in this world for people to go hungry,” she added. “I believe that as Christians we should take care of everyone, regardless of who they are, where they come from.”
“If I could do this every day of the week I would.”