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‘We’re gonna feed as many people as we can’

Face-to-face meals return to St. Vincent de Paul’s dining room in Medford
Joel Burrows of Ashland finishes up a meal with his daughter, Emma Burrows, 4, and family at St. Vincent de Paul in Medford. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]

St. Vincent de Paul’s dining room in Medford was open to guests Monday — a welcome return to normalcy for the organization, which reopened just two weeks ago after being closed to diners for two-and-a-half years due to the pandemic.

Offering fresh-cooked meals, complete with drinks and dessert from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., St. Vincent’s President John Vinatieri was all smiles, broom in hand while greeting diners.

Vinatieri said the dining room is open two days per week to start, with plans to be open five days per week before rainy and cold winter weather sets in.

In addition to closing the dining area, the organization shuttered its urban rest area, which provides laundry and showers, as well as its food pantry. Food boxes, for a time, were distributed on an emergency basis, by phone request only. Social services were also handled via phone.

Slowly, one by one, various services reopened — with precautions in place — except for indoor dining. Vinatieri said lunches were still provided throughout the pandemic, bagged or boxed, but that the return to indoor dining was long-awaited by clients and volunteers.

“We did still provide meals throughout the past two years of all this. It was a decision we made because we realized, just because we had a pandemic, we still had a group of clients who were in a situation where they couldn’t make certain alterations, based on financial or other reasons,” Vinatieri said.

“We just thought, ‘We’re gonna open the door, and we’re gonna find a way — and we’re gonna feed as many people as we can.”

Last Tuesday, St. Vincent served 211 diners, most of whom opted to come inside and be served at a table.

Recent Rogue Valley newcomers Tiah Hatcher and Joel Burrows, who camped their way from Missouri to Southern Oregon, had no idea they’d landed at St. Vincent de Paul just two weeks after the dining room reopened.

Vinatieri talked to the family Monday about shelter options and other available resources, and an emotional Hatcher offered to volunteer.

Hatcher said the chance to sit down at a table and enjoy a meal was a bright spot during a difficult time for the family. The couple’s children, Emma and Master, ages 4 and 5, flipped through a stack of children’s books, munching on chocolate brownies.

Hatcher said the family endured two house fires within a year of one another and hoped for a fresh start in Southern Oregon, but they had what seemed like an endless streak of bad luck in recent months.

“We planned to get jobs and find a spot to be, then we had a flat tire on the way out here, which took a big part of the money we had left. Our tent poles gave out a few nights ago,” Hatcher said, tearing up.

“People have been really helpful, and it was nice to find a place that’s open to come in and sit down so the kids could feel normal again.”

Hatcher said a sense of a place to belong, when you’re down on your luck, means the world. The couple landed at a local shelter for the past few nights and stopped at St. Vinny’s when they heard meals were available.

“The face-to-face thing, when you’re having a really hard time … it’s not easy to go and ask for help as it is, and it’s really hard to feel good about yourself when everything is falling apart,” she added.

“The fact they’re here and wanting to help people, masks off, and you can come in and feel welcome, it means a lot.”

Vinatieri said there was an obvious shift in energy since reopening; longtime clients and newcomers, he noted, all seemed grateful to be invited inside.

“Before the pandemic, we’d scoop food onto their plate, and they’d go about their business. Now people are so grateful for that human connection,” he said.

“A lot of them, since we reopened, will say, ‘Oh, we’re used to eating outside now.’ Or they’ll just go eat in their cars. But more and more are coming back in, and we know for a fact, as soon as it’s raining and feels like 30 below zero, they’re going to want to be inside where it’s warm, and we have hot coffee and all that kind of stuff.”

Vinatieri said it meant a lot to serve clients in person.

“We have more face-to-face now, whereas before it was kind of a line, and we’d say, ‘What do you want?’ We didn’t get to know them as well,” he said.

“Now we know their names. Everyone seems to care more about that person-to-person. … We’ve had guys come up and say what a difference it made that we have continued to serve the meals. One guy, who got out of being homeless, said, ‘If it wasn’t for you guys, I would have starved to death. I ate here with you every day.’”

For more info on St. Vincent de Paul, including how to donate or volunteer, call 541-773-3828 or see stvincentdepaulmedford.info

Reach reporter Buffy Pollock at 541-776-8784 or bpollock@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @orwritergal.