by Sharon Rovansek
There is a little eatery in State College where the meals are as varied as the diners who eat them. Beef bourguignon with cauliflower florets, salmon with herb butter sauce, and brown sugar glazed meatloaf with mashed potatoes are regularly served along with soups, salads, deserts, and fresh fruit. There is also a take home table, where diners can help themselves to breads, fruits, and vegetables to help stock their own kitchens throughout the week.
The special thing about these meals, though, are not the ingredients nor the creative way they are served, but that they are free to anyone who is in need of one. Every Thursday evening from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., diners and volunteers come together to create the Community Café at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. Some come early to enjoy a cup of coffee, which is brewed all afternoon, or to chat, or to even save a seat for a friend who they know will be a little late. Volunteers will also sit with diners to catch up, share photos of family or pets, or to just get to know each other a little better.
Then, just before 5 p.m., there is a little more hustle, and people begin to line up and to inspect the menu. Diners can choose from two soups, two main courses, vegetables, and assorted sides. The meal is all you-can-eat, and diners can return as often as they want for seconds or to try that Italian Wedding soup that everyone seems to be enjoying. Diners can also choose if they would like to have more meat, more gravy, not as many potatoes and, oh yeah, they would prefer not to have kale because it tastes too much like kale.
Plates are passed through the service window, and diners can help themselves to salads, pies, cakes, cookies, milk, coffee, and lemonade. The atmosphere turns downright festive with people calling to each other, children running between seats and asking their parents if they can have another cupcake, or with diners even starting to sing if the mood seems to call for it.
And this is what makes the Community Café a truly unique place to be. Volunteers are not shoving food through a window without making eye contact. This is not a prison or a half-way house. This is a place where diners are empowered to make choices. If you think about it, some people never get to order from a menu or are able to decide if they would like extra gravy, but also make no mistake, the Café just isn’t about food. Some people are lonely. Some people never share a meal with anyone. Some people never have anyone to ask if their cold is better or if they heard from any family.
The goal of the Café is to have a place where everyone is welcome, no questions are asked, and no screening is done. In our world, there are many who not only need food to nourish themselves, but also need nourishment of the spirit. The road goes two ways, too.
Ask any volunteer about why they choose the Café as the place to put their resources. The answers are as varied as the people themselves. Some remember a time when they needed a helping hand, some do it because they see a real need to provide meals, and some do it because it helps them appreciate what they already have. One volunteer will tell you that she suffers from serious depression and that having a place to be every week, surrounded with people and doing good work helps her to stay healthy.
I will tell you that one of the best things someone can do for anyone is to simply come into the Café to share a meal. There doesn’t have to be complicated talk, you don’t have to be witty or pithy or even topical. You just have to sit with someone who may not even want to talk. Just by being together in this room on Thursday night will help someone out and hopefully make their week a little bit better until the next Thursday rolls around.
I will also tell you that the Café operates solely on donations. We are extremely fortunate to exist in a generous community. We pick up food donations 4 times a week from Trader’s Joes, Weis Markets, and Wegman’s. In summer, we are the beneficiary of squash, eggplant, tomatoes, and whatever anyone else grows too much of in their home garden. Never be afraid that if you come in to have a meal that you are taking a meal from someone else. Our motto is that donations are accepted but they are never expected. If you feel the need, put some money in the jar for all the little things like butter, spices and other ingredients that stitch a meal together. We’ve taken dimes and nickels from that jar, and it adds up. Remember, generosity adds up.
The Café operates every Thursday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church located at 208 West Foster Avenue in State College. If you have any questions, please contact the church office at: (814) 237-7659.
Sharon Rovansek was born in California and has lived in many places with her husband, Ron, before settling down in State College. She went to school in Alaska, had children in Louisiana and now finds exploring the world to be one of her favorite hobbies along with gardening, true crime, and volunteering her time at The Community Cafe at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. She is very proud of her three sons, Abraham, David and Jack, as they start to make their own way in this world as hopefully useful young men, and especially proud of her little shelter dog, Doodles, who every day brings joy to her life.