One couldn’t help but think that Martin Luther King, Jr. would be proud of everyone at Monday’s serving of The Welcome Table in Vermillion Monday, near the conclusion of the day the nation pauses to celebrate the civil right leader’s birthday by serving others.
In particular, he’d be pleased with Josie Galles, Morghan Byrnes, Rose McLaughlin, Linze Cowman and Haley Rust. The five University of South Dakota students – all involved with the university’s AWOL program -- the Alternative Week of Off-Campus Learning program – did more than provide volunteer labor while helping serve meals Monday at the Community Connection Center.
They offered a bit of themselves, too, by taking the time to get to know the people who frequent The Welcome Table each week.
In part, they were advised to do just that by local people who make sure The Welcome Table runs smoothly each week. They also, however, demonstrated why they are involved with AWOL to begin with. The program is designed to help students engage in service projects and gain new perspectives on social issues while meeting community needs.
Thanks to the crew at The Welcome Table, those goals were met while the AWOL students fulfilled wishes of the late Martin Luther King, Jr. by serving others.
“I just really think it’s neat how we do it here and that the guests are so welcome here and that we sit down and take the time to really know them,” said Martha Muellenberg, who first became involved with The Welcome Table because she wanted her young children to see for themselves how rewarding it can be to help others.
Today, she and her kids are regulars when it comes to supplying the help that’s needed to serve meals and brighten people’s Mondays.
“The food is a nice part of it, but getting to sit down and talk to someone is probably even more important than the service that you’re doing while you’re here,” she told the volunteers during a brief orientation session held shortly before the night’s diners began to arrive. “Even if you’re kind of a shy and introverted -- I definitely am -- just make a point of sitting down and talk to somebody and get to know them better and welcome them as part of our community.
“We’re all in the same place at the same time, enjoying each other,” Martha said. “I was trying to be a good mom; I wanted to expose my girls to service and they sent me down here (to the Welcome Table). I’ve been coming back ever since.”
Monday’s crew soon learned that three of them were needed in the kitchen that night and that Martha needed two helpers to assist in distributing beverages.
Jenna Schweiss, who describes herself as the server coordinator at The Welcome Table, made sure the night’s volunteers knew of what was expected of them.
Jenna, a former Miss South Dakota, began volunteering at The Welcome Table two years ago.
“I loved it so much that I stuck around,” she said.
Monday night may seem difficult at times, Jenna said, because there was no menu.
“Tonight, it might seem overly complicated because we don’t have a menu, but it should be a really, really easy menu because we have taco soup or chicken soup,” she said. “We serve restaurant style here, but it’s more like home style restaurant. Rather than featuring yourself as a waiter or a waitress, picture yourself as being in your house and these are your guests, sitting at your dining room table.
“Rather than serving them and hiding out in the back waiting to check on them, just stay with them the whole night. Cater to them, sit down, chat with them -- you’ll have plenty of time throughout the night to sit down with the people at your table,” Jenna said. “Everybody here loves to talk. They will love to get to know you and you get to know them back. They will chat with you all night if you let them.”
The volunteers were told that they would be responsible for more than one table since The Welcome Table features 10 tables and there weren’t that many volunteers available for serving.
“It’s been kind of slow with the weather so don’t let that overwhelm you,” Jenna said. “Some of the tables might have one person at them the entire night while some of you might have people come and go and your tables might be filled with new people all night long. It’s just kind of the luck of the draw.”
Many of the same people come to The Welcome Table’s new home – the Community Connection Center – every Monday night. Many sit at the same tables and many will stay the entire evening, until serving has stopped approximately two hours after the doors first open.
“Most of them will stay all night long and chit chat, because this might be the only time they get social interaction,” Jenna said. “It might be the only the time they get to celebrate their birthday, too, so that’s really important. If someone tells you it’s their birthday, even if it’s not their birthday until this coming Sunday and they’d rather celebrate it this week, rather than next Monday, we’re going to celebrate it this week.
“We have plenty of cards; we have plenty of cakes. We just ask that you get their names because we do like to personalize the cards and make sure we sing their names when we’re singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to them,” she said.
Guests at The Welcome Table may have seconds.
“After they’re done with their first round and while you’re chit-chatting with them, if you see someone has an empty plate, ask them if they’re ready for seconds,” Jenna said. “Just keep checking back and if they’re not ready, checking on them later.”
The Monday meals wouldn’t be complete without dessert. Serving that special course, the volunteers learned, is also their responsibility. A small room at the Community Connection Center housed a variety of treats on a small tray. The volunteers followed directions and made sure everyone ended the night with dessert.
Following the meals, the volunteers also helped clear and clean tables.
“Just make sure it’s nice and clean for the next round of people who might be coming in,” Jenna said. “That may or may not happen – we just never know – but we like to be prepared for that.”
The Welcome Table stops serving at 6:45 p.m. each Monday.
“If somebody comes through the door after 6:45, we’ll still try to get them a meal to go,” she said, “because we don’t want anybody to leave hungry. We do child’s portions, too, and that’s kind of at your discretion. I like to ask the kids if they are really hungry, because I don’t want to give a kid a child’s-size portion if this might be the only big meal that they get this week, so just keep that in mind.”
Again, Jenna advised all of the volunteers to offer not just food but also their time to the people who were about to dine at The Welcome Table that night. There would be instances, she said, when the pace of work slows down. That’s the time to join with the people they had just served.
“If you see a gentleman sitting by himself, or maybe a couple of kids, just sitting by themselves, just go and chat with them. If they look lonely … you can be that person to sit with them and ask them how they’re doing,” she said.