Roanoke volunteers feed
hungry during pandemic

Volunteers from Our Lady of Nazareth Parish, from left, Maggie Bradley, Colleen Hernandez, Catherine Black and Pat Oberlin make spaghetti and tossed salad for those in need at Roanoke Area Ministries (RAM) House on Tuesday, Nov. 24. Since the pandemic closed the organization’s dining room, several volunteers from the parish cook and serve about 80 hot meals to go every day. (Photo/Karen Adams)

Our Lady of Nazareth parishioners ‘lifesavers’


When the growing pandemic caused widespread shutdowns in March, Roanoke Area Ministries (RAM) House staff members feared for the hungry people they feed every day of the year.

“We said, ‘Where will all these people go and how will they be fed?’” said Geralynn Trellue, the development director and volunteer manager for RAM House, an interfaith, non-profit day shelter that serves free hot meals daily to anyone in need in downtown Roanoke.

On average, it serves about 80 meals a day; last year it served a total of 30,293 meals to 1,569 people. The organization offers other services as well, including financial and material assistance.

“In March, everyone began to hear: ‘You need to stay home, isolate and wash your hands,’ but what if you don’t have a home? And how do you wash your hands without access to clean water?” Trellue asked, and noted that some RAM House guests are homeless, while others may have a place to stay but not enough to eat.

She quickly developed a plan: close the dining room but try to keep the kitchen open to provide hot meals to go and follow protocols to keep people safe.

Volunteers arrive, stay

That’s when a team of volunteers from Our Lady of Nazareth (OLN), Roanoke, stepped in. OLN has a long history of parishioners and clergy helping at RAM House, which is housed in the two-story brick building that once was the parish’s school and which is still owned by the Diocese of Richmond.

But, Trellue said, this was a completely new, and dangerous, situation. She expected that all volunteers would choose to stay home, understandably.

Yet, to her surprise, not all of them did. Even though they are all in the at-risk age category, a small group of mostly women from OLN arrived at the kitchen with masked faces and gloved hands, rolled up their sleeves and tied on their aprons.

“These folks from OLN have been lifesavers,” Trellue said. “They have kept the kitchen open.”

When guests arrive at RAM House, they stop at a hand-washing station and receive a wellness and temperature check before filing inside to receive a hot meal in a carry-out container and a bottle of water. Volunteers also pack bag lunches to be delivered to the homeless in the area who cannot come to the site.

“I asked myself, ‘What does my faith call me to do?’” said Colleen Hernandez, OLN parishioner and a Benedictine oblate. “I have to do this. Even when things were so dire at first, my faith challenged me to help them.”

Other area churches and organizations, both Catholic and non-Catholic, have helped in various ways, explained RAM executive director Melissa Woodson, but Our Lady of Nazareth has gone above and beyond all expectations.

“I thank God for these OLN volunteers,” she said. “I don’t know what we would do without them.”

What God called them to do

Paula Moore, the weekday kitchen manager, noted, “These people are wonderful; they really pitch in.” She added that there was enough help scheduled for Thanksgiving. “It’s amazing that we have OLN volunteers willing to work on their holiday.”

On Thanksgiving Day, OLN parishioners Mickie Asbury, Catherine Black, Tom Dalzell and Pat Oberlin helped weekend kitchen manager Sheila Campbell cook and pack hot turkey dinners for RAM House guests.

Asbury, a retired social worker, had previously worked with fellow parishioners Tricia Chopski and Maggie Bradley in the RAM clothing closet, which provides free clothing to those in need. When it closed, the three — whom Hernandez calls “the backbone” of the volunteer effort — moved to the kitchen.

“I prayed about continuing to volunteer, and thought, ‘Who’s going to cook for these poor blessed souls?’” said Asbury, who loves to cook and said serving food to the hungry is an important part of her spiritual life. “We use our hands and feet to become the body of Christ. We all have a moral obligation to do what we can to help others and to be loving and kind.”

Marketing director and executive assistant Molly Archer observed, “These OLN volunteers have enhanced my own faith. They say this is what God is calling them to do.”

Thanks to their reliable help while following protocols, she said, the meal service has continued in its new form without a break.

“It really shows God’s grace and provision,” she said. “He has provided every step of the way.”

Seeing the face of Christ

OLN volunteers often tell the staff how much they love RAM House and how they gain far more than they give.

“I have become closer to God through this work,” said Asbury. “The people who come here are so humble and appreciative, and I see the face of Christ in them.”

Those parishioners who cannot help in person assist in other ways, e.g., donating money and food, including fresh produce grown in OLN’s Giving Garden, and by keeping RAM House in their daily prayers and thoughts.

Parishioner Lee Blair previously organized the parish’s monthly Sunday meal preparation and service for RAM House but has not been able to return since the pandemic began. A while ago, she asked a guest about his life story; what he said moved and remained with her.

“He was quite taken aback by the kindness of the people at RAM House who feed him,” Blair said. “What it’s taught me is that we must never judge other people because we don’t know what they’ve been through.”

“We’ve been amazed at the support of OLN,” Trellue said. “They tell me: ‘We’re being cautious, but it is our Catholic Christian mission to serve.’ It’s so inspiring. This is lifesaving work.”

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