FORT SMITH -- Every Thursday, St. Boniface School sixth graders attend hands-on religion class. Principal Dr. Karen Hollenbeck drives her students downtown to distribute lunches to the poor of Fort Smith.
At 8:30 a.m., they open the dutch door of the Sack Lunch Program and welcome their guests with a smile, a hot cup of coffee and a nutritious sack lunch, containing a sandwich, dessert, juice and fresh fruit. The Sack Lunch Program serves everyone who comes up to the door --men, women and, more frequently, families with children. In this red-tape free program, the only documentation needed is outstretched hands. In 2011, the program served 50,984 meals, a 28 percent increase over 2011.
"You want a real religion class? It's right here," Hollenbeck said.
She learned about the program four years ago at Leadership Fort Smith and decided to get students involved. During the summer, she brings her husband, Sebastian County Sheriff Bill Hollenbeck, and her children to work the Thursday morning shift. She has just started a term on the program's board of directors.
The Sack Lunch Program operates out of a building owned by St. John Episcopal Church with 300 volunteers from local Episcopal, Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran and Latter Day Saints congregations and other organizations. The door is open from 8:30-9 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.-noon weekdays and 8:30-9 a.m. Saturday, staffed by different groups. Catholics from St. Boniface, Immaculate Conception and Christ the King parishes are actively involved.
The Sack Lunch Program gained national attention when the Baloney Sandwich Index was created by Ken Kupchick, marketing and development director of the River Valley Food Bank. He made a correlation between the number of sack lunches given away to the unemployment rate in Fort Smith and Sebastian County. Kupchick said the index shows about a 70 percent correlation with the number of unemployed compared to how many sack lunches are handed out each month.
Linda McDonough of Christ the King Church is a program co-director.
"Linda writes grants, I coordinate the volunteers, and Judi Stilwell does the ordering and figures out the cost per meal," co-director Jean Kolljeski said.
With careful planning and $27,000 in grants, the program is able to keep costs down to 63 cents a meal.
Tom and Dorothy Caldarera of Immaculate Conception Church, co-owners of Taliano's, a local Italian restaurant, bring huge pots of the same soup they serve at their restaurant every Tuesday and Thursday, staying to ladle the soup and greet people Tuesday morning.
Former board member Karin Hahn of Christ the King Church is "the banana lady," delivering hundreds of pounds of bananas each week so that the guests can get fresh fruit at lunch. The Buergler family, who operate "In His Name," a food ministry to the homebound that their parents started years ago, bring cases of apples.
"Our family has been blessed," Bill Buergler said. "We've gotten our reward now, not later."
"September is Hunger Awareness Month," McDonough said, "and it's a great time to let Catholics and others know the ways they can help the 17 percent of Fort Smith families who don't have enough money or assistance to get food."
The Sack Lunch Program volunteers who gather to make and serve lunches are an ecumenical community dedicated to following the Catholic principle of subsidiarity.
"One of our volunteers served a lady who didn't have a coat on a cold day," Kolljeski said. "She gave the lady her own jacket. We've had groups who've adopted whole families at Christmas time and given families baby clothes and other necessities."
Through her work at the Sack Lunch Program, Hollenbeck learned about a new ministry -- making waterproof, lightweight, blankets for the homeless.
"A lady came to school and taught our sixth graders how to cut the (plastic grocery) bags into long loops so that they could be made into 'plarn' for blankets," she said.
For more information on the program, call (479) 782-9912.
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