Sharing Meals at the Haven: From Italian to Indian Cuisine, Volunteers Pitch In

Dinner At Hixon House By James Patterson Of The Valley News

Shelter staff member Faith Dubois, of Wilder, left, and volunteer Cherokee Boley, of Claremont, right fills their plates during dinner at the Haven in White River Junction Thursday, August 1, 2013. Boley is a former resident of the shelter and now returns as a mentor to residents.

By Nicola Smith, Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The dining room was busy, the tables were filled and the atmosphere was familial. The conversation flowed and the menu was eclectic: sesame noodles, chicken salad, potato salad and three-bean salad.

But this isn’t a conventional restaurant, and it doesn’t accept reservations. Every night at the Haven on Route 5 in White River Junction a team of volunteers prepares dinner for people living at Hixon House, which offers free housing to adults who, for whatever reason, find themselves in need of shelter.

The Haven, which was founded in 1980, is divided into the family shelter at the Byrne House and the Hixon House Adult Shelter, which opened in 2010 and can house up to 20 people. While Byrne House has a communal kitchen where families can make their own meals, the kitchen at Hixon House is staffed at dinner by volunteers from the community, some of whom also happen to work at the Haven. Three meals a day are served, but while residents get their own breakfast and lunch from what’s available in the dining room, dinner time is when volunteers spring into action.

Dinner is served from 5:30 to 6:30 and “if someone has a job or a meeting we hold plates for when someone gets home,” said Laura Perez, volunteer coordinator at the Haven.

It’s possible to eat Chinese food one night, Italian the next and meatloaf and mashed potatoes the night after that, depending on what the volunteers decide to make. A team can range in size from two to six people, and although it has free rein in what to make, it’s important that a meal be balanced between vegetables, starch and protein, said Jennifer Fontaine, director of community services and operations.

The Haven has its own garden, which supplies fresh vegetables and such fruits as blueberries, apples, strawberries and raspberries both to the residents and the volunteer cooks. Local businesses, including Hannaford’s supermarket, donate food, as do farmers and home gardeners. The first night that Stephen Lazardo, who’s been living at Hixon House for the past month, ate in the dining room, a team of Sikh volunteers prepared an Indian meal. Lazardo was eating dinner with Mike Clogston, also a resident; both happen to be veterans and professional chefs. Lazardo cooked during a tour in the Air Force and Clogston, who served during the Gulf War, was executive chef at a Vermont resort. “I think everybody’s doing a pretty good job,” Clogston said of the meals, and he rated the Haven’s kitchen gardens highly for their produce.

The Haven also offers a Healthy Eating program, which teaches residents about nutrition, and gives out recipes. “You never know what path people have been on when they walk through the door,” said Perez of the effort to educate residents about food and cooking.

Until recently, the Haven wasn’t responsible for providing dinners seven days a week. But when Listen switched its local community meal site from St. Paul’s Church next door, to the newly rebuilt Listen center on Route 4 in White River Junction, the Haven stepped in to fill a gap.

More volunteers are needed to cook dinners at Hixon House, Perez said. They can make meals in the kitchen there, or bring meals that are already prepared. A team of volunteers can expect to cook once a month and it’s customary, although not obligatory, to ask guests what kind of food they’d like to eat the next time the volunteers cook.

“There was some resistance at first to volunteers cooking. People thought it was bourgeois,” said Perez, by which she meant that there was concern that it could look as if they were condescending to the people who use the Haven. But that resistance was swept away by the success of the program.

“Everyone’s very appreciative. Food is a warm, welcoming way to greet people,” Fontaine said.

“I’ve never noticed anyone in a bad mood eating,” said her husband Sean Fontaine, who volunteers in the dining room. The way the dining room is set up — round tables where guests sit down with each other — is “conducive to talk,” he said. The most popular meals, said Perez, are those that seem to remind people of home and family: meatloaf and mashed potatoes.

The communal meals are important for another reason, said Mimi Murray-Eastman, who works at the Haven in the family shelter and had helped make the salads for the evening meal. Staff and guests are able to mingle in a fairly casual setting. “It’s delightful to come over here and interact with people during a meal,” she said.

Perez said that 63 families had stopped in that day to get food from the food shelf, and that the Haven serves about 1,000 families monthly. What never changes, even if the menus do, is the need.

Read the article in the Valley News. Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.

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