Oak Park Center helps those whose food dollars are stretched to the limits
By Charles Hallman
Debra Chavis, back in 2005, was instructed to serve the community — an instruction that came from her mother. Chavis’ mother suggested she provide “an authentic Thanksgiving dinner for the community with the real turkey, real ham, real cornbread dressing, fresh collard greens — like the meal we have in our own house” each November.
As the director of the Oak Park Neighborhood Center in North Minneapolis, Chavis now fulfils her mother’s request. “We made everything from scratch — it was 199 people [who attended] that [first] year, and it went really well.
“The volunteers of that event were my brothers and sisters,” recalls Chavis. The center ever since holds such a dinner at no cost for nearly 200 folk at the Northside center.
This year’s event was held last Friday, November 22. The annual dinner is very much appreciated, says Shirlee Jordan of Mortenson Construction. “I know people are saying, ‘If it wasn’t for this, we wouldn’t get this type of dinner.’ People
really, really appreciate it, and you can tell… You can just feel it in the room.”
“When I first came here, I wanted to change the way people thought [of] our participants, our clients,” explains Chavis. “We treat everybody the same, whether they wear a suit or not.”
The rule is, “Don’t be judgmental to anyone. When they come to that dinner, they are not going to feel like they are a homeless person or poor. It’s run like a restaurant — it’s friendly and welcoming, and we’re here to serve. They all need to be treated the same when they walk through our doors.”
“Sometimes people don’t want to ask [for help] because they are embarrassed, but [we] don’t make them feel embarrassed,” explains Chavis’ sister Brenda Reid, a volunteer who helps coordinate the center food shelf, which is open on the third Wednesday of each month. “These are people who come in here [because they] really need it.”
Oak Park holds “a home-cooked” community meal every third Thursday each month as well. The two sisters point out that the schedule coincides with some families and individuals who often find their monthly food stamps at their limit.
“You should see the line for the food shelf — we didn’t have enough,” observes Reid. “[Last week] the number of people here in line to get some vegetables and produce was quite a few. We got most of them signed up for the dinner.”
“Mortenson is really big on serving community,” notes Jordan, the company’s services manager, who tells how she came to Oak Park five years ago. “Our stewardship committee was looking for an organization to sponsor. I wanted to sponsor an organization here in our community, an organization that actually works for the community, and I didn’t want to sponsor a big organization.
“We visited eight organizations, and I fell in love” with the center. “I remember the first day I came here, people hugging me and they didn’t even know me. Every year since then, I feel more love every time I come here,” says Jordan. “It’s an honor for me to work with you and to support this community with you because I know it comes from your heart.”
The three women shared their view that times are tough for too many people these days with many just one paycheck away from poverty and one paycheck away from being homeless, reiterating that they don’t judge people because they just don’t know their stories. “We don’t even have to ask their story, just be there to help,” says Jordan.
“We at Oak Park go out of our way to help,” says Reid, echoing a lesson taught to her and her sister by their mother, the late Lavada White, who died last year.
“She always taught us about giving. It’s not always about the money that counts but putting your time in and being there, smiling and being nice to the people, letting them know that they are welcomed and that they are worthy of anything we can give to them.
They consider the annual Thanksgiving dinner another lesson learned from their mother: “Her legacy still lives on,” says Chavis.