The smell of spaghetti and garlic bread wafted through the air as a team of volunteers from Arconic buzzed around the kitchen at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ at Fifth and Market streets in Downtown Washington one Saturday evening early last month.
Wearing matching T-shirts with the company logo, the men and women smiled and laughed as they worked together to prepare the weekly Harvest Table meal for guests.
The Harvest Table is a free and open community meal served every Saturday evening from 5 to 6 p.m. in the dining room at St. Peter’s UCC. The meal is intended to provide a home-cooked meal for anyone who is hungry or looking to stretch their grocery budget or just in need of some companionship.
No questions are ever asked of the guests, who are gladly given second or third helpings, and even sent home with more food. The meal is served in a sit-down fashion by volunteers.
For the last two years, those volunteers have included employees from the Arconic plant in Washington. The company, which makes titanium and engineered products for the aerospace industry, strongly encourages community involvement, said JoAnn Smith, who works for Arconic in Washington as a planning specialist and who serves as a manager at Harvest Table.
If you are not familiar with the Arconic name, Smith said that’s because it’s new to Washington, but the company is not. It was previously known as Alcoa, RTI Advanced Forming and RTI Tradco. It has a plant at 1701 W. Main St. in Washington’s Feltmann Industrial Park.
Arconic employs about 215 men and women at its Washington plant, and over the last two years, around 30 to 40 of them have volunteered to serve the weekly Harvest Table meal, said Smith.
Arconic has been volunteering about twice a year, but this year it has signed up for four meals. That is significant, said Karen Dawson, president of The Harvest Table and one of its founding members.
While The Harvest Table enjoys support from a number of businesses, churches and organizations around the community, Arconic is one of the few businesses that volunteer to serve the weekly meal, Dawson said.
“We have other businesses that donate and help us in other ways, but these guys are one of the only ones who come to serve too,” she noted. “They’ve been a blessing.”
Between 10 to 12 volunteers are needed to serve the meal each week, and that has never been a challenge for Arconic.
“They have been above and beyond every time, and they bring so many great desserts too,” said Dawson.
Smith said Arconic employees rush for the chance to volunteer at the Harvest Table.
“I put up a sign-up sheet, and before long, we have more than what we need usually,” she remarked. “We are never short whenever this group works.”
“It’s kind of a team building thing for us where you get to know someone outside of just work, and people from all different parts of our factory get to work together,” said Katie Sahm, human resources generalist.
That shared experience of volunteering together does bring the employees closer, Smith agreed.
“And it makes me feel good,” said Barbara Thomas, an accountant for Arconic. “It is very, very rewarding, participating in the activities that we do.”
Not all of Arconic’s employees have the opportunity to serve at The Harvest Table because they work on Saturday evenings, but they support the work in other ways, like donating a dessert or fruit for the guests to take home with them.
Harvest Table Evolves
Since The Harvest Table served its first free Saturday evening meal in October 2010, the nonprofit has built up a large number of regular volunteers. Already for this year, all of the Saturday meals except for two have sponsors that have agreed to provide the food and/or volunteers.
“There has been so much community involvement now, there’s so much donated food that we just have an abundance,” said Smith. “All of these ladies who have freezers at home, they’re full. Our freezers here are packed full.”
“We’ve also become the donation place for funeral leftovers or wedding leftovers,” added Dawson. “Or big company parties, if they have food left over, rather than just dispose of it, we gladly take it, and if we don’t serve it immediately, we freeze it and give it away to our guests for take home food.
“Besides the meal we serve on Saturday nights, we give everyone a take-home meal for Sunday,” said Dawson.
The Harvest Table is providing food for the community in other ways too. After receiving a call from Grace’s Place about a need for emergency food assistance, Harvest Table responded.
“Our mission didn’t start as that,” said Dawson. “We started just as the Saturday night meal, but we already had one man today who is homeless and living in the woods that we’ve taken care of today, so times change.”
In addition to food, The Harvest Table also has started handing out Blessing Bags filled with nonperishable food and hygiene items to people in need.
“We realize there is a homeless problem; we see it every Saturday night,” Dawson remarked.
More Businesses Welcome
Even with the community involvement for The Harvest Table already being high, Dawson and Smith said they would love to see more businesses get involved.
“I think it benefits the whole community for people to see the need and to support each other like that,” said Smith.
“And it makes us realize as a city that there are usually between 50 to 100 people here every Saturday night who are hungry,” said Dawson. “And that hunger doesn’t know any boundaries or ages.”
While volunteers get no monetary gain from serving at The Harvest Table, Dawson hopes they leave with the same feeling she does every time she volunteers — “A sense of I made a difference; for one night, I made a difference.”
Guests range in age from newborn babies up to senior citizens in their 80s, 90s and older. Many come to The Harvest Table every week, and regular volunteers get to know and care for them.
“They have become my friends,” said Dawson, noting after one guest passed away recently, she went to his funeral. “Over the years he was a giant in my eyes.”
Businesses who want to get involved either by serving the weekly meal or donating food or funds can contact Dawson at 636-399-1426.
“Donations are the lifeblood of The Harvest Table. It’s what we need to keep going. We figure we spend about $80 a week on consumables — milk, coffee and ice tea . . . ,” she said.
Those kinds of donations are just as valuable as any other and good way for groups to get involved, said Dawson, who pointed out that The Harvest Table is an ecumenical service.
“This is not one church or another. This is just Washington helping Washington, and that’s what makes it so beneficial,” Dawson remarked.
Company Support for Service Makes Employees Proud
For the employees at Arconic, their service to The Harvest Table is just part of what they do to give back to the community. They also donate to Loving Hearts Outreach, Grace’s Place Crisis Nursery, Pregnancy Assistance Center and most recently The Road Home homelessness simulation event held in Union.
“We’ve actually organized a charity committee, which is new for us this year,” said Smith.
The employees were charitably minded before, but since Arconic has taken over (and Alcoa before that), they have become even more so, said Smith.
“Now it feels like there’s more company support for it. They want us to go out and do it,” Smith said, noting the company recognizes the employees’ community service every October.
Last fall, the Arconic Foundation donated $25,000 to the Franklin County Future Farmers of America (FFA) to support plant science studies at Washington High School.
The FFA is using the funds to expand the greenhouse on the school grounds and construct outdoor garden beds.
The Arconic Foundation has been accepting applications for a similar grant this year.
That kind of donation from their company to their community makes the employees feel proud.
“I love how they want us to be involved and how they give back too,” said Smith.