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1st Phoenix brings back community dinners

Kandy Scott, left, helps direct Phoenix High senior Sara Espana at the Thursday community dinner in Phoenix. file photo

A tradition of 10 years, free community dinners return Thursday, June 24, to the 1st Phoenix Community Center after more than a year’s absence due to the pandemic.

The dinner runs from 5 to 6:30 p.m., at 121 W. Second St., Phoenix.

“Not only are the dinners coming back from before COVID, but this will really help the community heal from the fire,” said Phoenix Mayor Terry Baker. “It’s places like this dinner where we become a community, where friends can become our family.”

Some changes have been made to the usual procedures to ensure protection from the coronavirus and due to staffing concerns. Masks and handwashing stations will be available. For the first dinner, limited outdoor seating will be available, but to-go packaging will be offered.

“We are cutting down seating by about half. If we are full-up, they can take it to go,” said Carolyna Marshall, board of directors chair and volunteer coordinator for the center.

The late June dinner date is traditionally a barbecue, and this year Bob Stapp will bring his The Preachers Barbecue cook wagon and prepare pulled pork sandwiches, coleslaw and baked beans to go with a dessert prepared by former dinner chef Fredi Mueller, who had been handling the meals since 2014.

Dinners had been held the second and fourth Thursdays, but will now occur on the last Thursday of each month. Cooks from the community and local restaurants will rotate to handle meal preparation.

Dinners stopped, with one exception, after March 12, 2020, when prepared meals were handed out. In late June 2020, the group held its traditional barbecue by handing out prepared food. More than 250 dinners were given away, and Marshall is planning to have 300 meals ready this year.

While the meal is free, donations are accepted. Besides dinner, the Phoenix High School color guard will be on hand, and mandolin player Ciera LeAnne Cox and cellist Daniel Glover will play with sound equipment provided by The Phoenix Clubhouse.

Resumption of the dinners comes as the organization moves forward to enhance its mission with the hiring of its first executive director, anticipated in the near future.

1st Phoenix Community Center grew out of efforts by First Phoenix Presbyterian Church to provide community services that started in 2000 with a free food pantry located in the basement. Later the center established itself as an independent, nonprofit organization, but the two groups have now rejoined forces as the missions are so closely aligned.

A joint venture board for the center and the church make decisions on operations and finances, but matters of worship are left to an autonomous church group.

The joint board hopes to hire an executive director who would also be an ordained pastor. The church’s quarter-time pastor retired in March. A bequest to the church has provided funding for the position, which would be tried on a one-year basis. A screening committee had already conducted interviews. One of the goals for the position is to establish the organization on a sustainable basis, said Marshall.

“We have been very fortunate this year as far as finances,” said Marshall. This is the first year the group needed to file a longer tax form required of nonprofit groups that receive more than $50,000.

Former City Councilor Karen Jones has been writing grants for the group. This year Albertsons awarded a grant of $10,000 for food purchase to support the pantry. Another $10,000 came from the Olsrud family and William and Ruth Evans for building projects and one-time expenses. In addition, Presbytery of the Cascades awarded $10,000 for installation of a fire escape and parking lot improvements.

Siding on the church that was damaged by the Almeda fire is being repaired. But the group has also been able to provide support for fire victims. It gave $500 to support the Firebird Bike Shop, $3,000 to support the Phoenix-Talent School District fire relief fund, and it provided rent assistance for several families of Phoenix High School band students who lost homes in the fire.

1st Phoenix has also provided office space for the Jackson County Fuel Committee after that organization lost its office in the Almeda fire.

Food pantry service never halted during the pandemic. But instead of customers selecting items, individuals are served by hosts who take orders and fill them. The pantry operates Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon.

A free clothes closet will reopen June 27 with limited access and operate from 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays and 1 to 3 p.m. Wednesdays.

1st Phoenix also added a website this year, created and maintained by Steven Williams. The web address is 1stphoenix.org.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.