The Neighbor to Neighbor Soup Kitchen in Philomath will serve its final Christmas dinner Tuesday evening and next week on Dec. 28, the volunteers will distribute the College United Methodist Church program’s last-ever meal.
Longtime coordinator Glenda Plant, 75, who has been involved with the program since 1998, announced several weeks ago that she would be stepping down and the church was unable to find a replacement to keep it going.
Plant’s husband, Tom, officially retired this past summer from Oregon State University.
“Sometimes it’s nice to just be able to do something on the spur of the moment and be out of town,” she said, adding that it’s difficult “when you’re tied to something and people are expecting you to be there on a certain day.”
Several volunteers have helped in the kitchen over the years but nobody has stepped forward to take over as program coordinator, which beyond food preparation also includes things such as ordering and meal planning.
Plant said that during the pandemic, the program has distributed 18 to 23 meals during a typical week.
“Before the pandemic, we would have anywhere from 30 to 60 meals but that also included seconds because if we had plenty of food, we’d let them come back and get a second helping,” she said.
For the Thanksgiving and Christmas meals, the numbers would swell to up around 100.
The Rev. Jonathan Enz of College United Methodist Church and Linn Benton Food Share volunteer programs coordinator Sharon Thornberry worked together to establish the Neighbor to Neighbor Soup Kitchen in the 1990s. It opened in the spring of 1998 with Linda Boyce serving as the volunteer coordinator.
“The gal that was originally the main cook and organizer did it for a couple of years and then her little baby grew to the point that she wouldn’t sit still in the high chair for that long,” Plant remembered.
Boyce felt she needed to step aside from the position and Plant, who had been helping with cooking in the kitchen, volunteered to take over.
Plant brought expertise to the job with a background that included a college degree in dietetics nutrition from Iowa State University and work as a public health nutritionist while living for two years in Montgomery, Alabama.
The couple relocated to Illinois and had two children, at which point she decided to focus on her energies as a stay-at-home mom. Then it was on to Thousand Oaks, California.
“Our next-door neighbors were from Oregon and when we started indicating that we were wanting to leave … they suggested we check out Oregon and we had never been to Oregon,” Plant said. “But we took a trip and thought, ‘huh, this looks pretty good,’ and so we’ve been here for 43 years.”
Despite the name, the Neighbor to Neighbor Soup Kitchen serves hot meals and rarely offers soup. Plant said that was the name attached to the program “because otherwise people don’t know it’s a free meal.”
Many food distribution programs require people to register, but the church’s program has never taken down names.
“Anybody can come; it doesn’t matter if they are really hard up or not,” Plant said. “Some of our church people have come and I thought that was good because they would sit amongst the others … and sometimes they would hear of a need besides food and then that would be passed along and we would try to deal with some other needs they might have.”
The onset of the pandemic eliminated those sit-down opportunities with the kitchen forced to transition to a takeout-only meal service.
Plant said the meal program really never attracted many families with mainly individuals. Before the pandemic, it was a popular stop for homeless people who would come over from Corvallis.
Although the meal initially brought people into the building, Plant said the social aspect of it became a weekly need as well with folks sitting around for a couple of hours chatting. In fact, she said they would eventually have to ask people to leave because the dishes were all done and the volunteers were ready to head out.
“We probably had maybe 10 people that came out from Corvallis every week,” Plant said. “They wouldn’t necessarily come in the same car but they knew others that would be there from that same little group and they’d sit in the same area, same tables.”
The program received most of its food from Linn Benton Food Share, although every once in a while Plant would need to go out and buy certain items.
“Our congregation has been very supportive so I’ve never had to make the plea ‘we’re running low on funds,’” she said.
Some money would also come in on the evening of the meal through a donation basket that was set out. That went away, of course, with the transition to takeout only.
Prior to the pandemic, the program featured six to eight people in the kitchen helping with preparation. But since the spring of 2020 with restrictions in place, it’s basically been four individuals doing the work — Glenda and Tom Plant and Lori and Larry Sleeman.
Others that have helped in recent months include Linda and Dale Doig, Gail Mayer and her daughter, Becky Mayer, Barb Davis and Betty Collins.
“I’m very appreciative of all of the different people that have helped through the years,” Plant said. “It’s been a blessing to know them.”
The most significant stretch of time that Plant took away from the Philomath position occurred in 2010 when she and her husband went on a six-month sabbatical. The late Jessie Morgan and Lupe Maginnis filled in while she was away.
Tom Plant, who will be 75 next week, has been alongside his wife volunteering as well over these past several years, primarily doing dishes. Since the pandemic, he’s also been meeting people at the door.
Glenda Plant will enjoy some other activities without the weekly soup kitchen responsibilities.
“It opens up where you don’t feel afraid to go places,” she said. “Some ladies at church got me interested in quilting, so I may be a little more ambitious with that.”
In addition, the couple tries to stay active walking four to five miles a day, when weather allows, and through a fitness class. She also has a huge garden with 25 rose bushes. And they have their two children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
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