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Published: Friday, 12/26/2008

More than a meal is offered through Food For Thought

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

This is the story of a spiritual bridge that quietly started being built in downtown Toledo in May of 2007.

Not because some rich man came to town and dropped off a bundle of cash. But because a few people with big hearts and comfortable homes got inspired to make eye contact with those less fortunate and cheer them up with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Meet Food For Thought, a nonprofit group that has grown exponentially to include dozens of volunteers from 18 Toledo-area congregations.

The group distributes sack lunches outside the main Toledo-Lucas County Public Library every Saturday morning, rain or shine.

Its stated mission is to be "a gateway between poverty and prosperity."

Don Schiewer, Jr., associate pastor of New Harvest Christian Church in Oregon, and a few others laid the groundwork for the group, hiking across downtown with backpacks filled with sack lunches to distribute.

He's in the business of offering empathy, but Mr. Schiewer, who also is Food For Thought's executive director and founder, admits that he got puzzled looks and raised eyebrows at first. Little did he know he was forming a modern Dickens tale that brings together Toledo's haves and have-nots.

"Most of what we've done [to bring people together] has been accidental," he said.

The sack lunches include chips and a cookie to go along with the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

The lunches are assembled by volunteers on Friday nights at Mr. Schiewer's church, which provides space for that work. Food For Thought is not affiliated with the church.

Michelle Marks, Food For Thought's assistant director, said it took about four months of weekly visits before street people stopped being wary of the motive behind those free lunches.

Then magic struck.

Would-be recipients learned that a trailer hauling the lunches usually parked near the library.

The library's courtyard became the ad hoc meeting spot.

A relationship developed.

Today, Food For Thought distributes 300 to 500 sack lunches every Saturday morning in the courtyard, rain or shine.

But that's not all.

Hygiene kits typically holding a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, and deodorant are given away, as are donated clothes and socks. There's a festival-like atmosphere at times, with musicians playing songs and artists offering face-paintings.

During this holiday season, people have been singing Christmas carols.

Sometimes the group has been able to fix up bicycles and give them away. Or give away backpacks filled with winter hats, gloves, scarves, and blankets.

What has impressed organizers is how friendships have grown between those giving and those receiving.

Many of those in need are capable of getting a warm meal at a nearby shelter, such as the Cherry Street Mission. A lot of them opt for the sack lunches out in the cold, just to check in with Food For Thought volunteers and engage in conversation.

"There's something absolutely beautiful about standing outside in 20-degree weather in rain or snow with a friend," Mr. Schiewer said. "This isn't just about giving a lunch. It's about having a lunch."

Ken Leslie, a Food For Thought volunteer and board member, agreed.

"Food for Thought is not about the food. It is about the thought. The thought of a community that tells the forgotten ones they really do matter," Mr. Leslie said. "Us being there every single week, no matter the weather, gives them the a sense of love, a sense of commitment, a sense of connection they might lack in other facets of their lives."

The Saturday gatherings begin about 10 a.m. this time of year and, even with inclement weather, last two hours. In the summer, the fellowship continues until 3 p.m. or later.

Ms. Marks said there is "something intriguing about it when we go down there."

She couldn't help but cry when she thought about what the program has done for her spiritually.

"It's been transformational. It's made me so much less judgmental. It's changed my perception of people. It's changed my view of God," she said. "They taught me a whole new way to look at God, to look at life."

Ms. Marks said the program's never been about the food.

"All it does is open the doorway to get into somebody else's life," she said. "It shows that somebody cares. It became this incredibly beautiful thing."

This also is a story with loose ends, no tidy finish.

Seeing despair in the eyes of some people sticks with the volunteers.

It hardens their spirits. It toughens their souls.

They come to realize they cannot change the world, only offer some compassion.

Ms. Marks said she was humbled by a homeless man who broke out singing "Our God Is An Awesome God" to show his appreciation for a new backpack. Rats had chewed through the straps of his old one, making her wonder about his life on the street.

"You walk away with parts of your soul exposed that you didn't even know were there," she said. "You're walking into hopelessness. It's not all sunshine and roses. There will be times you go home crying. But, you know - that's the beautiful part of it."

For more information about Food For Thought, go to freelunchtoledo.com.

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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