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Let‘s eat... Community meals program delivers to 1, 000 needy families

Rick Coates - November 16th, 2009
Let’s eat
Community Meals program delivers meals to 1,000 families in need
By Rick Coates
Buckley resident Sandra Svec has never forgotten her childhood and the hardship of being a child among one of the first divorced families in the area. Growing up without many of the basic “life” items most of us take for granted, Svec has dedicated the past 20 years of her life giving back to those in need through the Holiday Dinners and Community Meals program.
This Thanksgiving, Svec, along with an army of volunteers, will deliver close to 1,000 meals to the needy in the region. In addition, on Thanksgiving they will also host 300 plus at Trinity Lutheran Church for the 21st Annual Community Thanksgiving Dinner. Svec and others also prepare special meals at Christmas and Easter.
For most, giving up three family holidays to serve hundreds in need would be enough to sleep well each night, but not for Sandra Svec. Each Sunday and Monday she and her volunteers offer community meals at 5:30 pm at Trinity Lutheran. They’ve been providing these meals every week for almost 20 years.

ALONE EVERY HOLIDAY
So what drives Sandra Svec to give countless hours each week, along with out-of-pocket expenses? (100 percent of all money collected is used for the program; no one is paid for working for Community Meals.)
“I know what it is like to be alone and with little money,” said Svec. “My parents divorced in 1948, and I was just four. I was lucky if I saw my father once a year. My mother and I would go to church and see all the happy families and we were alone every holiday. It was tough. We lived in a small trailer where Mabel’s is today (on Munson Ave. in TC). We didn’t have a car and we walked everywhere.”
Svec remembers her childhood as if it were yesterday.
“When I was 10 my mother had me walk and knock on the doors on Washington Street and ask if I could wash and polish their floors,” said Svec. “They would look at me as say, ‘you are just a kid, what can you do?’ My mother told me to be persistent and keep going back and knocking on those doors.”
That persistence paid off for Svec then and has stuck with her. Those who volunteer for her know of her persistence all too well.
“She is a terrific person who has sacrificed a lot,” said Randy Kamps, a crew leader with Community Meals. “Sandra is very persistent; she is driven by the simple fact that she cannot stand the thought of people going hungry, homeless and without basic personal items.”

VICTIMS OF CIRCUMSTANCE
For Svec it is about realizing that many people are victims of circumstances.
“I didn’t ask to be in a divorced family in an era when no one divorced. We barely got by in those days,” said Svec. “One day when I was knocking on doors, a woman asked if I could watch her children while she did chores around her house. Eventually I was able to save enough money to buy a bike. That was a luxury for me. I remember my mom walking home one day from Prevo’s on Eighth Street and she had bought ice cream. I had never had ice cream before. I said, ‘Mom you take this back right now -- we can’t afford this. You take this back to Mr. Prevo and tell him you want your money back.’ I remember my mom telling me that we deserved it. Boy, did that ice cream taste so good.”
Eventually Svec would land a job working at the Michigan Theater in Traverse City, first as an usher and eventually as candy girl. After high school she did secretarial work for Davis Electric and Interlochen Center for the Arts. In 1966, she married George Svec and moved to his farm near Buckley, where they raised corn and 14,000 chickens over the years. The Svecs are still married and have raised three sons.

GETTING STARTED
So how did Sandra Svec launch Holiday Dinners and Community Meals?
“My husband and I were always inviting people who were divorced or alone to join us at Thanksgiving. That feeling of being alone at the holidays when I was a kid stuck with me and I didn’t want others to have that same feeling,” said Svec. “Well, when the number of people coming over started getting past 20 I started thinking that others in the area might be alone and that maybe a community Thanksgiving dinner could take place.”
Svec had no idea in 1989 what she was getting herself into when she offered up the first community Thanksgiving meal at the Emmanuel United Methodist Church on Ninth Street in Traverse City.
“We told area churches. I went to the paper and asked if they could put an ad in for me and we had no idea how many people would show up,” said Svec. “I had no idea where the food was going to come from or where all the volunteers would come from. It was a miracle. People came from all over to help. Jerry Olson donated hams and turkeys. I started to cry when I saw the 200-plus fresh baked loaves of bread that people in the community baked.”
More than 200 showed up for that first dinner. For many it was the first social activity in years. She handed out blankets to everyone and that tradition has continued, though now Svec hands out jackets, socks and other basic needs items.

REGULATIONS
But what started out as a simple gift of giving has found its way to being regulated by the government.
“Yes we are a 501c3 and for all practical purposes I am the president and we have regular meetings,” said Svec. “We are regulated by the health department so all of the food has to be prepared in a commercial kitchen; we can’t have people making things at home anymore. We are very grateful for Trinity Lutheran allowing us to use their commercial kitchen. At Thanksgiving the Great Lakes Culinary Institute and their students will cook all of our turkeys at the college.”
For the past 21 years Svec and those who work with her have helped thousands, and over the past year the need for her work has grown but she fears for the future of her organization.
“It is really tough out there. We have depended on restaurants to donate food to us each week but many of them are struggling. Donations are not coming in like they used to and we are getting fewer volunteers and the need is greater now than it ever has been. I get people asking if we are going to have to stop doing this,” said Svec. “I do not know where the money, food or volunteers will come from but I know we are not going to quit. Somehow it will work out.”
A sad tone comes to her voice as she thinks about the future of Communiy Meals and Holiday Dinners.
“Look, this isn’t about money, it is about being alone. If you are among the richest people with the biggest homes in the area and you are all alone at the holidays it just isn’t fun, it is depressing and sad,” said Svec. “I see it in the faces of the people we help. Sure, they appreciate the food, the clothes, toothbrushes, soap, blankets and the other items we provide them, but it is that feeling of not being alone even if it is for a few hours on Thanksgiving or every Sunday or Monday, that makes a difference for them.”

Sandra Svec and Community Meals need your help volunteering, donating items or cash to assist them in the weeks ahead. You may reach Sandra at 231-263-7130. Volunteers are needed to deliver meals and help at the church during Thanksgiving and every Sunday and Monday. Donations of gloves, socks, sweatshirts, boots in all sizes, and winter outerwear are needed for men and women. Bar soap, washcloths, razors, shaving cream, powder, facial tissue, and shampoo in small sizes, deodorant, toothbrushes and toothpaste along with pads of paper and pens are needed to complete “Survival Kits.”
Checks should be made payable to the Community Meals Program with a notation “Thanksgiving Dinner, Christmas Dinner, Easter Dinner or Any” and be mailed to Community Meals Program, P.O. Box 102, Traverse City, MI 49685. The Community Thanksgiving Dinner takes place at the Trinity Lutheran Church (13th & Maple) from 1 pm to 3 pm and weekly community dinners are offered every Sunday and Monday at 5:30 pm at the same location.

 
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