HARRISBURG -- A packed house of diners and volunteers filled the Harrisburg First Presbyterian Church Annex Tuesday night, as Heaven's Kitchen celebrated its one-year anniversary in style.
State Sen. Dale Fowler, whose Fowler-Bonan Foundation started the program a year ago, said he was humbled by the outpouring of support from the community for the program.
Heaven's Kitchen provides a no-cost dinner from 5 to 6 p.m. each Tuesday at the church annex. Volunteers cook, wait tables and provide cleanup for the weekly event, which provides a quality dinner in a comfortable setting for anyone who attends. Most weeks musicians perform during the dinner or other entertainment is provided.
Fowler said making certain people have food to eat is a high priority for him.
"There is such a need in this community and almost every community in southern Illinois," Fowler said. "Sometimes, it's easy for some of us to take for granted that we'll have three good meals a day while there are many people who don't know where their next meal is coming from. It's heartbreaking."
However, thanks to efforts from a large and enthusiastic volunteer base, not only has Heaven's Kitchen grown from serving about 60 people its first night to 200 to 300 each week (Tuesday night saw about 300 served), support from volunteers and donors has allowed the program to open in Marion. There, the Fowler-Bonan Foundation has partnered with Marion businessman Jeff Diederich and his Diederich Foundation to provide a meal beginning at 5 p.m. on Thursday nights at the Marion Ministerial Alliance at 103 E. Calvert St.
The support of donors and volunteers has been critical to the program's success and expansion, Fowler said. For instance, for the one-year anniversary dinner, the Harrisburg Knights of Columbus provided fried catfish, using the same recipe they use for their Lenten fish frys. Knights of Columbus members brought the fish and fried it on location, while other volunteers in the kitchen cooked and filled plates. Still others then delivered dinners, drinks and desserts to diners at their tables. Still others packed dinners in carryout boxes for at-home deliveries.
Toward the end of the evening, Fowler thanked the many volunteers, including Dawn Horn, Valarie Hodges, Amy Craig and Kerry Camp for helping get the program started. He also thanked the many regular volunteers who cook and clean up after each week, those who provide food donations, entertainment and others. He also thanked businesses and individuals, which was a lengthy list, who provided prizes won at the end of the night. More volunteer and donor recognition may be found on the Heaven's Kitchen-Harrisburg Facebook page.
Meanwhile, Fowler said he'd like to see the program continue to expand to other communities.
"This is wonderful, and I'm amazed by the outpouring of support we have here and in Marion, but we're helping just a fraction of the people who could use a little extra help," Fowler said. "I'd like to see this continue to grow, and with dedicated volunteers and supportive communities, it can happen."