The blue-plate special fundraiser is a tradition in Sylva. On the last Wednesday of each month, Jackson County residents sit down to lunches served on battered wooden tables at the soup kitchen and eat food donated by local restaurants. The money they give in return helps keep The Community Table afloat.
The need is great. Since the economy soured, the mainly volunteer staff has been dishing out an average of 100 to 120 meals a night, up from 25 to 40. And that’s not just a strain on the budget. The Community Table can only seat 30 people at a time at each of the four dinners served each week. Additionally, a food pantry is operated out of the small building the nonprofit calls home.
“They are crowded, and this is a light day for them,” said Jean Ellen Forrister, a blue-plate regular who was at the soup kitchen last week. “Sometimes people are standing in line.”
Though the answer is just a few blocks away, the fix won’t be simple. Town of Sylva commissioners agreed the soup kitchen could move into the former Golden Age center, which was vacated after the county built a new senior center late last year. But up to $90,000 might be required to renovate the old building and render it usable. Walk-in coolers, stoves and other kitchen equipment must be bought. That could cost an additional $30,000 if purchased new, $20,000 used.
Amy Grimes, executive director of The Community Table, and the soup kitchen’s other paid staffer, Kevin Hughes, have been roughing-out cost estimates. They are trying to figure exactly how much they’ll need to move The Community Table, and where that money will come from.
Grimes this month made the rounds nonprofit directors of local organizations all make when seeking dollars: first to the town board, then to the county board. Town leaders said they were strapped for money. They asked that the use of former Golden Age building be considered their contribution. Additionally, the town’s maintenance workers will help The Community Table fix up the building, if time away from regular duties can be found.
“I wish we had money, that we could write a check for you guys,” Sylva Commissioner Stacy Knotts told Grimes.
Grimes appealed to county commissioners for a contribution of $50,000 toward the work. They asked Grimes to provide a list of exactly what’s needed and the estimated costs. They promised to consider her request then.
County Commissioner Tom Massie said he didn’t mind spending county tax dollars to renovate a building owned by the town, given that The Community Table would use the building.
“It is serving Jackson County residents,” Massie said. “The majority of the clientele are residents of Jackson County whether they reside in the town of Sylva or not.”
Grimes said she has asked the town for a five-year lease on the building with an option to renew. That, if granted, should allay any concerns about the county’s participation, she said.
Fundraising starts next month
“They really need the space, and it’s a good location with lots of parking,” said Sara Hatton, a Jackson County resident who also ate lunch at The Community Table’s blue-plate special last week.
Both Hatton and Forrister expressed confidence that people in the community will donate the dollars needed to move The Community Table to the former Golden Age center, fix-up the building and furnish the kitchen.
“I’m always just amazed at the willingness of people to come forward here and help,” Hatton said. “The response to the library has just been phenomenal.”
When official fundraising started for the new Jackson County Public Library complex in May 2008, the Friends of the Jackson County Main Library had $140,000 in hand. The group, which is spearheading the fundraising drive, has since raised more than $1.7 million. This total represents a combination of grants, matching funds and private donations, said Mary Otto Selzer, co-chair of the capital campaign.
The shaky economy has forced many in Jackson County to seek help from the soup kitchen for the first time. Grimes said some construction workers, unable to find jobs, are relying on The Community Table for meals. So are a number of working people whose wages aren’t enough to make ends meet, or whose house have been cut.
Grimes said an annual survey revealed that many of those coming to the soup kitchen have been college educated. This represents a significant change from surveys taken in previous years.
Estimating when The Community Table will make the move is almost impossible at this point, Grimes said.
“First quarter of next year?” she said. “That’s probably too soon. The building is so old. We’re just really not sure what it is going to take.”
Want to help?
The first major fundraising event in support of The Community Table’s move to a bigger location will be held Sept. 15 at Bogart’s Restaurant in Sylva from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m. Harris Medical Park is sponsoring the event. WRGC 680 AM will be live on location for part of the day, and local well-known people are expected to stand on the roof until allowed down for “ransom” dollars.