PITTSFIELD, Maine — There is a lot in a name, and “Welcome Table” pretty much conveys its own meaning.
On every Friday for the past two years, the program has offered an open table, a warm lunch and an atmosphere where anyone is welcome. At the Welcome Table, held at the First Universalist Church in downtown Pittsfield, the camaraderie is just as important as the food.
Lynwood James, a lifelong Pittsfield resident who lives on a fixed income because of a physical disability, said the Welcome Table helps both his budget and his social schedule. He has come almost every Friday since the program began in December 2008.
“It’s a really good place to come talk to people,” he said Friday while enjoying a salad, homemade chicken noodle soup and strawberry shortcake. “The food is good too. You can’t beat it.”
With a monthly income of about $700 — and no cost-of-living increases on his Social Security for the past two years — James said he usually eats his meals out of cans.
The program also is attracting new visitors. Wayland Smart of Pittsfield first came to the Welcome Table last week. On Friday, he brought his aunt, Dorene Curry of Newport. Curry said she had not known what to expect but enjoyed her meal and spending time with her nephew.
“It gets us out of the house to see people,” she said. “That’s important.”
There are many organizations offering free meals in Maine, and a lot of them struggle to put food on the table week after week. The Welcome Table is unique in that each week’s meal is organized, paid for, cooked and served by a local business or organization. Trudy Ferland, one of the program’s organizers, said sharing the burden has been what keeps the program going. However, that does not mean filling 52 dates a year doesn’t come without challenges.
“The process of the calendar takes time,” she said. “We have not been closed on a Friday even once since we’ve opened. We’re really proud of how the community has worked together on this.”
On Friday, employees from an electronics manufacturer called United Technologies — formerly known as GE Security — stepped up to provide the meal. Kirsten Hibbard of Levant, a manufacturing engineer with the company who spearheads the effort, said employees supported the program through fundraisers and individual donations. Hibbard said committing to serve anywhere from 40 to 60 people was daunting at first — her group was responsible for serving the Welcome Table’s inaugural meal two years ago — but she quickly realized how manageable it is when there are many hands to help.
“It’s really not too hard,” she said. “In fact, it’s really a lot of fun.”
And popular. Hibbard said that when she arrived Friday at about 9:30 a.m., a group of women she calls the “Skip Bo Ladies” were waiting at the door.
“They stay for the entire time we’re open, playing [the card game] Skip Bo,” said Hibbard. “I get the coffee and the heat on for them as quickly as I can.”
Ferland said because of the Skip Bo Ladies and others who show up early, the Welcome Table now opens earlier. Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Friday.
The Welcome Table also spills into the community. Cheryl Lombard of Pittsfield, who attended Friday with her husband and neighbor, said she usually takes leftover servings to friends and family who live alone.
“I hope they can continue this program,” she said. “There are a lot of folks who really do need it.”
Marjorie and Richard Beaulieu of Pittsfield also are longtime Welcome Table attendees.
“It’s a social thing,” said Marjorie, who has worked and volunteered for several senior citizen organizations over the years. “It’s so important for people to be able to get out and away from their four walls. I know a lot of people can get depressed.”
“Especially the elderly,” said Richard Beaulieu.
Ferland said the program has taxed the equipment in the First Universalist Church’s kitchen and that the Welcome Table’s administrative team is soliciting donations to buy new knives, baking sheets, a good frying pan, water glasses and a stand mixer. The only big-ticket item on the wish list is an industrial dishwasher.
“That would make things so much easier,” said Ferland. “It can take hours to do all those dishes.”
To donate items or learn how your business or organization can host a Welcome Table lunch, contact Trudy Ferland by calling 487-6523 or e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.