After more than 400,000 meals for those in need on Capitol Hill, Don Jensen exits Community Lunch

Don, center, with volunteers (Image: Lucas Boyle)

In 1985, a group of local Lutheran churches banded together to provide a hot meal for low-income senior citizens of Capitol Hill. Ten people showed up for the first lunch.

On a recent rainy March day, the scene at the Central Parish House of the Central Lutheran Church looks very different. A quickly-growing crowd of over 30 people huddled under and near the awning of the entrance to the church, waiting for the doors to open at noon for a warm lunch of chicken and rice casserole.

Inside, plates clatter while a group of volunteers arranges the food, including a side of vegetable salad, buffet-style, on long tables near the back of the large, high-vaulted room. Others fold napkins and add more chairs to each table. At least 150 people are expected to come through the doors in the next hour.

Since its small-scale beginnings 34 years ago, Community Lunch on Capitol Hill has served hundreds of thousands of hot meals to homeless, low-income and hungry people. The non-profit serves over 400 people each week, during lunch at noon each Tuesday and Friday at Central Lutheran Church, and supper on Wednesday and Thursday at All Pilgrims Christian Church.

The Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce recently honored Community Lunch with a ‘Spirit of the Hill’ award.

Lunch hour at Central Lutheran Church is one of the busiest times for Community Lunch, and as the hands of the clock inch towards 12, the number of volunteers seems to swell, their actions swifter.

Don Jensen, seated at a table near the door, watches it all with the gentle smile of someone who’s seen the ritual unfold many times before. In his 13 years as Executive Director at Community Lunch, he’s helped serve or attended over 400.000 meals. On April 15th, Jensen is stepping down from his post. Jensen’s successor will be introduced during the non-profit’s “Spring Celebration” fundraiser this Sunday, March 24th at the Swedish Club. Jensen’s not sure what he’ll do next, but says he’s just “retiring from this job.”

“I am going to miss everybody here,” Jensen says. “The guests, the volunteers, the donors.”

His retirement, he says, was his own choice. “It was time to “turn leadership over to some new ideas.” Though he’s departing with a heavy heart, Jensen says he is happy to leave a healthy nonprofit. Since arriving in March 2006, he’s transformed the then three-year-old non-profit with one employee (himself) and no budget into a $300,000 a year operation with city funding, an expanded donor base, substantial reserve fund and partnerships with local restaurants and businesses.

Today, over 2,000 people volunteer each year, though now they’re supported by a staff of 6 people (most of them part-time) to help organize four meals a week. In 2018, Community Lunch served more meals than ever before: 52,000.

It’s a bittersweet record. “We’re very pleased to be able to serve anyone,” Jensen says. “but it’s a shame that so many people are so hungry.”

Anyone who has been at a job for 13 years in the year 2019 has seen The Great Recession play out in their professional (or personal) life one way or another. If you, like Jensen, have done so in a city like Seattle, where explosive growth has left behind many, including a homeless population of over 12,000 people, you get a first-hand look at the depth and changing nuances of the problem.

“In 2009-2010, our numbers went crazy,” he says. “They’ve stayed pretty much that high since then, it has only gone down a little.”

In the last year or so, Jensen’s noticed that way more young people find their way to the meals: “A lot of young people are really hungry. It’s concerning.”

People are not just hungry. 60% of the guests are homeless, so they are often also cold and in need of other types of care besides food. That’s why Community Lunch has expanded its offerings of “survival services.” During every meal, guests can take home sleeping bags, coats, shoes, socks, clothing and toiletries.

“We also offer medical services,” Jensen adds. “Every other Friday, there’s a medical van parked outside the church, and we recently added dental service as well.” Community Lunch has also collaborated with a mobile vet van to do free check-ups on dogs and cats.

Providing these critical services is rewarding, but it’s not just about a hot meal, clothing or gear for the most vulnerable people in the community, Jensen says. “It’s also about treating these people, who go through a very, very hard time in their lives, with dignity and respect. We get to know people’s names so that we can say hi to them in a personal way when they come in. People also come here to see their friends. And have a meal with them.”

Learn more about Community Lunch and how to make a donation or volunteer at communitylunch.org.

 

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