LIMA — The plaque over the serving window reads, “Family — a household sharing common values, goals and love for each other.”
Head cook Karen Van Meter pointed to the sign and said, “That plaque says it all about this place. Any of our lives can change in a moment and put us on the other side of that counter.”
The Christian Corner Community Center, located at 1601 McClain St., first came into existence in the 1960s as the Greenlawn Roller Rink, built by Willie Mack Daniel. In 1993, the place was turned into a soup kitchen.
“I describe this place as a community center,” said Phil Harpest, director of Christian Corner Community Center. “People can come in and socialize, and we also serve a meal. It is so much more than just a soup kitchen.”
Harpest became the director in 2006. In July 2006, he came in with the extras from a church breakfast. A short time later, his mother died and he came in to donate her belongings to the center. “I was really looking for a place to volunteer and help out,” he said. “When I came in here that time, I felt something — like I needed to be here.”
After finding out that the center’s previous director, Amy Schroeder, was resigning, Harpest shared his interest in the position. Even though the center is run and primarily funded by St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church, Harpest said his Baptist background was not an issue. “I believe the Lord put me here because I guess that’s where He wanted me,” he said.
The Christian Corner Community Center is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday with their official hours from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. “I open the doors at 8 a.m., though,” said Harpest. “I give out doughnuts, juice and coffee. That’s very important this time of year. A lot of the people who come here don’t have heat or are homeless, so I leave the door open so they can come in to warm up and have a cup of coffee.”
The center serves an average of just more than 1,000 lunches every month, but they also have racks of donated clothing and sometimes appliances or furniture on hand for those that come in. “We try to get people the things that they really need,” said Harpest.
Although the lunch is usually served early, people stay around to enjoy socializing. “We do bingo after lunch, around 11:45,” said Harpest. “That is very important to our people. They tend to stick around, and we give out prizes. They love it.”
The center is run by three paid staff people which include Harpest, the head cook, and a general helper. Two other people work there through the Experience Works organization which places those 55 and older who haven’t worked in a while into jobs.
The place also has quite a few volunteers. While St. Rose Catholic Church and St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church have faithful volunteers that come in, Harpest said his volunteers come from a variety of denominational backgrounds. “It’s a good mixture of good Christian people,” he said. “Jerry Thomas, the last director’s dad, is very faithful. He’s here every day we are open.”
Despite the center’s location in an area of town that would give some people pause, Harpest said that he feels safe coming and going. “I feel as safe here as going into my own home,” he said.
Harpest does have two ironclad rules that can get a person banned from the center, though. “If you come in here and start a fight and hurt somebody you are not coming back,” he said. “The second is if you steal from us. I can’t remember having to ban anyone though. Folks know they can come to me, and we’ll try to take care of their needs. All they have to do is ask.”
The biggest challenge the center faces is lack of funds. “During these hard economic times contributions are down,” explained Harpest. “Trying to feed yourself and pay the rent comes before putting money in the collection plate, but we do have a good group of contributors that see to it that we continue to operate.”
Harpest has done his part by cutting as many corners as he can, even switching from the Styrofoam food containers and coffee cups to more economical options. However, he said he has seen God work to provide for the center on numerous occasions. “We see God’s work and miracles every day,” he said. “It’s too often for it to be a coincidence.”
Added Van Meter, “We see God work all the time. I emptied the last of the coffee, and then Phil walks in with a gallon of it even though he didn’t order it. We had a football team drop off buns and condiments. We had the hot dogs but not the buns. That’s God providing.”
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