ARLINGTON — After 10 years, members of the Brown Bag Brigade have a routine. The volunteers start to gather around 2 p.m. every Thursday at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, and immediately they are on task.
Nancy Kephart is charged with packing the carrots, while Sandie Cooper preps the brown sacks, inserting a juice box and granola bar into each. Char O’Neal and her mother Sue O’Neal assemble the sandwiches, assisted by Karen Rieger and Kay Wood. The women chat about the previous week, along with sharing stories and reminiscing.
About half an hour later, all 60 lunch bags are packed. The next day they will be delivered to the Arlington Food Bank.
“They got it down to a fine science and get the lunches packed pretty quickly,” said Virginia Hatch, who has helped organize the effort for years.
The program is part of the Hands Together project, which runs a cold weather homeless shelter hosted by a coalition of churches in Arlington.
The women joined the Brown Bag Brigade for various reasons. Kephart’s grandson did a service project with the group, though she stayed on after his hours were completed. Sue O’Neal was introduced to the group through her daughter, Char.
“I love being here for the people that need it,” Char O’Neal said.
“It’s a joy to do this,” Reiger chimed in.
Another small cadre of volunteers buy the food and deliver the sack lunches to the food bank.
“When the economy tanked, we asked what we can do to actually help,” Hatch said. “It’s not an exciting meal, but it’s a balanced lunch.”
Before the Brown Bag Brigade began delivering the meals, Hatch said it was apparent there were hungry kids standing in line with their parents at the food bank.
“If the need is there, we want to be there,” Hatch said.
To fund the lunches, the group collects money from the local Rotary Club and other service and charity organizations. Church congregations also give.
A little over a decade ago, as homelessness was becoming more visible in the city, Pastor Deena Jones of the Arlington United Church called a meeting.
“Looking outside my office there was a homeless person. There was another on my drive,” Jones said. “My eyes were just opened up to the situation.”
About 30 folks attended the meeting, which led to the Hands Together project and the Brown Bag Brigade. The cold weather shelter was launched a year later.
It operates between Nov. 1 and the end of March, when nighttime temperatures are at or below freezing. Breakfast and dinner are provided.
Jones said the cold weather shelter was opened 42 nights last season and served about nine people each night.
“Our numbers seem to go up almost every year,” she said.
It’s a large undertaking, requiring two people for each of the three shifts.
“Our biggest challenge is getting enough volunteers to be here,” Jones said.
The shelter has become a community affair. Throughout the week it rotates among several churches; Arlington United Church, Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, Jake’s House and Smokey Point Community Church. A trailer is used to cart the mattresses and bedding between churches.
Volunteers also come from Arlington Free Methodist Church, Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, Lifeway 360, Sisco Heights Community Church and the Latter-Day Saints. For more information, call 360-435-3259.
Lizz Giordano: 425-374-4165; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @lizzgior.