It was smorgasbord night when I visited. The kitchen of McKendree United Methodist Church
was filled with array of cheeses, crackers, peanut brittle, white cake with chocolate pudding a Heath Bar crumble, brownies, sugar wafers, southwestern omelet slices, chips, chocolate cake,
upside-down cake, and veggie platters – and those were just the desserts and appetizers. The main course was still in the oven
A similar panoply of culinary delights can be found every week at the Candor Open Hearts
dinner. Every Wednesday at 5 p.m., the UMC hosts the dinner which is organized by Sherry Kafka and Denise Peckins and staffed by a host of Candorites.
One of the regular volunteers, Bob Riggs, said, “Sherry and Denise are the big hearts in
the Open Hearts – they really got it going. There’s lot of people involved in it. I do some of the prep work – I guess that makes me a sous chef. There’s a whole gang that’s involved.”
Under different names, some version of the Open Hearts dinner has been held at UMC for many
years. Until about four years ago it was organized by Arlene Moyer. Under Moyer’s direction, a different local church would cook and serve the meal every week, although the dinner was always held at
McKendree. When Moyer decided to retire from her volunteer position, Kafka and Peckins took over as the event organizers and renamed it the Open Hearts dinner.
As Kafka said, “The dinner was going on under a different name previously and then we
started doing it – some time before the flood.” After thinking for a minute, she added, “It was 2009. Times flies but we’re in our fifth year now.”
The dinner’s menu is sometimes an unpredictable affair, contingent on what food items are
donated. Peckins explained, “For the dinner I usually plan the menu and we cook for 100 to 125 people a week, so we usually do casserole type things. What I like to do is basically whatever we’re
given. We need to kind of be creative to figure out something to do with whatever it is.”
Food donations can be deposited in a box outside the church, although some of the
volunteers bring cakes and desserts on their own. Bread donations come from the local Bread of Life Food Pantry. About once a month, the cooks put together a smorgasbord night where they use any
foods they haven’t made use of in the past month along with any leftovers from previous weeks. On the week I visited, the entrees planned using the variable donations included pizza casserole,
shepherd’s pie, and lasagna.
A small group of people comes to the church on Tuesday evenings to do cutting and prep
work. Kafka said, “We get anywhere from two to six people on Tuesdays and then on Wednesdays we get at least 10 and then a couple more will come to do dishes.”
Doing the dishes for a 100-plus person meal is a massive undertaking. Charlotte Breunig,
the wife of the church’s pastor and a regular Open Hearts volunteer, said, “They start doing dishes before people even start eating.” Kafka explained how the kitchen volunteers try to minimize the
number of dirty dishes: “We have a lot of the big steel pans but we use disposable aluminum pans to avoid doing all the dishes. Sometimes we’re done washing dishes by 7 or 7:30 – unless we have a
night where we ran out of paper plates.
In total, the Open Hearts volunteers make at least 100 meals per week, plus another 20 to
40 meals for take-out and delivery. Volunteer Fred Quinlan spoke about the to-go meals: “We do a lot of carry out to folks. Usually as many as 25 or 30. Some of those people will come here [for
pick-up]. Some we deliver to.”
What really makes the Open Hearts the community gathering that it is are the volunteers.
Rheannon Gardner, a 10-year-old student at Candor Elementary said, “I’ve been helping for as long as I can remember – at least since when I was eight. It’s really nice to help out.”
Charlotte Breunig commented, “It’s great community outreach.” Finishing her thought, Pastor
Mike Breunig added, “And it’s a great way for the families to get together.” Charlotte continued, “Some come for the food and some come for the ambience and the community.” Her husband concluded, “I
think that the folks that volunteer here really enjoy it. It’s good in a variety of different ways.”