University students find a taste of home at Whitewater church
And he’s not alone.
Hundreds of UW-Whitewater students begin arriving at the Prairie Street church about 10:45 a.m. Tuesdays for free, home-cooked meals in a warm and caring environment.
The standing invitation to university students has no strings attached.
“There’s no catch,” said Sandy Hiebert, university ministry coordinator.
No one preaches to students, she said.
“The kids can come in, slip out and ignore us,” Hiebert said. “We still feed and care about them.”
She tries to greet each student with a handshake.
Sometimes, Whitewater residents and the campus community find themselves at odds, Hiebert said.
The luncheon is a bridge that tells students the church always extends a welcome, Hiebert said.
This week’s lunch marked a milestone.
At 12:15 p.m., UW-Whitewater junior Angel Simonini became the 50,000th luncheon guest served by church volunteers since the program started more than seven years ago.
The lucky number earned Simonini a token gift and a round of applause from peers and cooks.
The number of students coming for lunch continues to amaze Hiebert, who started the program serving and cooking for only eight students.
Two weeks ago, the church served 484 students at one lunch, Hiebert said.
Most of the $40,000 budget for the program comes from private donations, The Wisconsin Conference of United Methodist Churches and the United Methodist Wesley Foundation, which is a local group that supports university ministry, Hiebert said.
The only request made to students is that they save Sentry grocery store receipts because 1 percent can be redeemed through the Heifer Project International to buy livestock for impoverished families, Hiebert said.
To date, the local lunch program has bought 12 water buffaloes, two goats and one llama.
Dana Paprocki and Amanda Matuszak, both juniors, always remember to bring their Sentry receipts, they said.
Matuszak has another reason for eating at the church.
“It’s like going home to eat,” she said.
All through lunch Tuesday, the kitchen bustled. Most of the 10 volunteers are retired and members of the LaGrange, Richmond or Whitewater United Methodist congregations .
Before the students started arriving, the volunteers held hands in a circle and shared a prayer.
For Dolores Feltych, her job as the chief cook and program coordinator has brought great joy.
A year ago, the Whitewater woman was battling breast cancer. She received 40 radiation treatments and five months of chemotherapy, Feltych said.
“It was the kids (here) that kept me going,” Feltych said.
Elaine and Dick Gronert, Richmond, also have found pleasure in their interaction with students.
“We love working with youth,” Elaine said.
After lunch, many of the 393 students served Tuesday thanked the cooks for a “great meal.”
The gesture was appreciated.
“These are a great group of kids,” Feltych said. “We’re really happy to have them.”