By KAITLYN NAPLES
About 25 years ago Bristol resident Paul Eckstrom volunteered for the first time at the Zion Lutheran Church’s Meals for the Needy program with his parents.
“It was a really rewarding experience for me and my family and I’ve been hooked ever since,” said Eckstrom who has spent the last 25 Christmas mornings prepare meals for nearly 400 people in his own community.
Every Christmas, the Meals for the Needy offers a Christmas dinner for individuals and families to both have at the church, or in the comfort of their home. Eckstrom said about 100 meals are served for individuals and families at the church from noon to 2 p.m., and another 290 meals are delivered to homes in Bristol, and parts of Plainville. The physical preparation begins at 7:30 a.m. Christmas morning, but mentally Eckstrom said he and his fellow volunteers will begin planning for next year, when this year’s dinner wraps up.
He said he spends a lot of time before the meal seeking out businesses to provide donations of food and supplies. He said even during the most difficult economic times “nobody has ever really said ‘no’.” The majority of the groceries come from Bristol’s ShopRite, he said, adding that the store is “phenomenal” in helping out the local community and when he puts the order in they package it all up and give him a good deal on the price. He added that Zion’s food pantry is also able to donate many food items to the meal. Also, he said Harvest Bakery has been donating baked goods and other items for many years, and Eckstrom said he can always count on them for support. This year, a new donor is Marilyn’s Pub, which will be donating things like chafing dishes, styrofoam containers, and more.
There is a core group of about eight volunteers, and then another 50 or so who volunteer to deliver meals to homes. Eckstrom said the delivered meals are prepared first so that they get out as quickly as possible; then the fellowship hall is turned into a dining area for the guests who come directly to the church to eat their Christmas dinner.
Eckstrom said that while the preparation is hectic and might not be the best organized, “it works for us.”
He divides up the drivers with a certain amount of locations to deliver to, and the last delivery goes out around 11:30 a.m., just in time to get ready for the noon meal at the church.
All of the volunteers give up their Christmas mornings and early afternoons to help out their local community in need, and Eckstrom said most of the volunteers have been doing it for a number of years.
“It’s remarkable, and we all do it for our own reasons,” he said, adding he thinks the volunteers help out because they know “the real spirit of Christmas; to help and to give back and be engaged with people” not only the guests at the dinner but also the volunteers.”
Eckstrom said the amount of food that is prepared for that number of people is just “a simple outreach, a simple gesture” for the volunteers, and said the whole experience “takes on a whole different meaning of Christmas.”
Cheryl Yetke, director of Zion’s Meals for the Needy program, said every month there is a different organization or group that takes on preparing and serving the meals every Monday through Thursday. She said between 55 and 120 meals are served each night at the soup kitchen, and four to five families visit the food pantry each day for groceries. Yetke said there is a large need for donations as well as volunteers, and anyone interested should contact her Monday through Thursday between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Zion Lutheran Church is located at 27 Judd St., Bristol and can be reached at (860) 589-7744.
By KAITLYN NAPLES