By Janis Fontaine
In 2017, Gena Vallee heard God’s call. When she answered, he put her to work immediately. “I don’t know if I can really call it work,” she said. “Much of what I do is an honor, and most times it goes by in a wink.”
Vallee, 43, was a lifer at FedEx, destined from age 18 to oversee the shipment of packages in some capacity until she reached retirement age, but she didn’t plan on retiring so soon.
In 2016, Vallee met her partner, Rose, and they started attending St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Boca Raton. In April 2017, they were married at St. Gregory’s and Vallee became fully committed to serving God. She had volunteered with the church’s feeding program, at the time a small commitment. She was so adept at solving problems, the church tried to hire her, but she said, “no, but thank you,” more than once.
“But God kept thumping,” Vallee said, and she finally left FedEx in 2017 and joined the church as the director of its youth ministry and outreach coordinator, as well as the driving force behind the church’s initiative to feed hungry people.
Vallee, with Rose’s help, started Meals with Meaning, which each Sunday provides several dozen homeless or food insecure people with homemade, hot, takeout meals and other basics at 1:15 p.m. in the Harris Hall courtyard next to the butterfly garden.
Volunteers from the community and businesses such as Publix and Crumbl Cookies step up to help. The food and volunteers on July 17 were from Kindness Angels, a local charity “dedicated to serving our homeless and our hungry one good deed, one small act of kindness at a time.” It is an affiliate of Kindness Matters 365 (kindnessmatters365.org).
The volunteers served vegetarian lasagna, salad, fruit and huge ciabatta rolls from frequent donor Old School Bakery in Delray Beach. Shloimies Kosher Bakery in Sunrise donated 96, inch-thick brownies. Volunteers also handed out toiletry bags with a variety of goods from baby wipes to snack crackers.
The volunteers from Kindness Angels included Risa and Amol Naiksatam, who brought along their children Micah, 10, and Chloe, 7.
Risa is a social worker and understands the importance of serving others. “We want them to always treat people well,” Risa said of her children, “and this is a great place to learn.”
Micah was a natural. Not the least bit shy, he stepped up to offer bologna or turkey and cheese sandwiches, always remembering the little packets of mustard and mayo. (All the guests who want a sandwich or two for later can pick them up at the end of the queue.) Chloe staffed the dessert table, picking out the largest slice of cake she could find for the man who wanted it. Both were happy.
The line for the meal is long and moves slowly. Each person gets one-on-one time to choose his food and ask questions, share concerns and just talk.
The volunteers try to make no judgments and to look people in the eyes and smile at them.
And though the number of people needing help may change, the problem will never go away, Gena Vallee says.
“One of the biggest challenges is keeping the community aware of the need, keeping our mission out in front,” she said.
Food insecurity has escalated since the pandemic began to food injustice, Vallee said. meaning food is available but not fairly distributed.
According to a study by Craig Gundersen, Adam Dewey, Monica Hake and Emily Engelhard — “The Impact of the Coronavirus on Food Insecurity in 2020 & 2021” — more than 70,000 children in Palm Beach County were going to bed hungry each night. The number of residents struggling to keep food on the table was more than 226,000, a 35% increase since 2018.
Want to help? Support food drives and the local food banks whenever you can. And volunteers are always needed. The St. Gregory food pantry volunteers commit to work three or four hours on weekdays. Meals with Meaning volunteers work for four hours on Sunday.
Nicole, Margo and Chris were first in line to pick up their meals. “The food is tasty, it’s filling and it’s a blessing to have it,” Nicole said. “And the desserts? OMG!”
Some guests take their meals to Sanborn Park when the weather is good.
Chris, a middle-aged man waiting for his lunch, said, “I never pass up even a penny. Everything has value. If someone offers me something, I take it. If I say no, I’m not letting them show their love for me. You don’t turn away love.”
St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church is at 100 NE Mizner Blvd., Boca Raton. Interested volunteers should call 561-395-8285, email email@example.com or visit mealswithmeaning.org. The organization also serves a supper starting at 4:30 p.m. on the fourth Sunday of each month.
Janis Fontaine writes about people of faith, their congregations, causes and community events. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.