Denise Williams has been the “Ticket Lady” at Portland’s Potluck in the Park’s free Sunday dinners for 12 years.
At noon, hungry people, many of them homeless, head downtown to O’Bryant Square, where Williams hands them numbered tickets.
“I love doing it,” she says.
Volunteers call out groups by their numbers to claim their meals. Williams joins the diners after she finishes her task.
The 21-year old nonprofit serves whoever wants a warm meal every Sunday, 52 weeks a year, retreating to the parking garage below O’Bryant in inclement weather. The organization engages hundreds of volunteers and will serve 30,000 meals this year to thousands of people. All of the group’s money comes from donations and fund-raisers such as the upcoming Winter Warm 6 Concert.
The Sunday meals draw people who often have fallen through cracks in the mental and physical health care systems, and many of them are the working poor, says Cheri Baber, Potluck’s board chairwoman.
People do not always choose the situation in which they find themselves, Baber says, and Potluck doesn’t ask that they do anything but enjoy a meal, providing people one simple thing to make their lives easier.
“We’re not out here to change the world,” Baber says. “But we can do one thing. And by us doing this one thing here, that leaves others to help (the victims of Superstorm Sandy) back East or people in India or anywhere other people might need help.”
Romance in the park
Williams says Potluck did more than offer her meals; it helped her meet her future husband. She was giving out tickets nine years ago when a homeless man named Julius Brown approached her. Back then, she was homeless, too.
“She wasn’t smiling, and I told her to smile, and we just started talking,” says Brown, 51, who became a Potluck volunteer shortly after meeting Williams.
“It was love at first sight,” says Williams, 55.
Williams now is on Social Security Disability Insurance and Brown, who suffered a back injury, hopes to get aid soon. When they were living under the Ross Island Bridge eight years ago, members of JOIN, a nonprofit that helps homeless people find places to live, extended its service to Williams and Brown. The two found housing and will wed in about two months.
Gov. John Kitzhaber will honor them and other long-time Potluck in the Park volunteers at the 2012 Oregon Governor’s Volunteer Awards ceremony today in Salem.
Changing the rules on home-prepared food
Eight years ago, Potluck in the Park learned it was violating Oregon food sanitation rules that prohibit an establishment from serving people home-prepared food.
Groups such as Christ Church Episcopal Parish in Lake Oswego, which has a licensed kitchen, stepped up to keep Potluck running, and most of the food is still prepared in licensed kitchens, says David Utzinger, a Potluck volunteer for 21 years.
Utzinger says Potluck and its supporters changed the food sanitation rules in 2008 to allow benevolent organizations to serve food to the needy that volunteers prepare in an unlicensed kitchen. Cooks must meet conditions, including obtaining a food handler certificate.
“This was the first such statewide rule in the nation and may still be,” he says.
Potluck in the Park, a nonprofit, engages a staff of 250-to-300 volunteers each month, whether they cook, clean, schlep boxes of food or help plan events.
Donations are crucial for most nonprofits, but they comprise Potluck’s entire budget, about $150,000 cash and at least $200,000 in products and services each year. Organizers expect Potluck’s Nov. 29 fundraiser, the Winter Warm 6 Concert, to bring in $30,000, about what it usually garners, says Baber. At least 300 tickets will be sold, she says.
The fundraiser moved this year from the Acadian Ballroom to the Tiffany Center, which will provide Winter Warm with its first dance floor. Oregon Culinary Institute is donating the event’s dinner, which will include seafood, meat and vegetarian soups.
Winter Warm will offer a raffle of donated prizes, including one of Williams’ crocheted blankets, dining gift cards, household items, a charcoal grill and wine. There will be a paddle raise, during which guests raise a paddle when an announcer names a sum they wish to donate. There also will be a wine wall where people buy wrapped bottles without knowing what fermented grape drink awaits them.
Jazz pianist Tom Grant launched Winter Warm five years ago after he performed with jazz singer Rebecca Kilgore at Potluck’s free Christmas dinner. He spotted fellow musicians partaking of the meal.
“I thought, ‘Oh God, this could happen to anybody owing to the right kind of circumstances,'” Grant says.
The Tom Grant Band with drummer Jeff Frankel and bassist Dave Captein will play Winter Warm again with an extra pair of hands, drummer Ron Steen.
The band will jam with well-known northwest musicians, who, while not volunteers, will receive “vastly below what they would normally get for such a concert,” Grant says. “I’ve done a lot of work for charitable organizations, but this is one that I’ve really grown to respect and care for a lot.”
Benefit concert for Potluck in the Park
What: Winter Warm 6 Concert
When: 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Nov. 29
Where: Fourth floor of the Tiffany Center, 1410 S.W. Morrison St.
Cost: $45 per person for general concert admission; $75 per person for light dinner, two drinks and concert.
For more information, visit www.potluckinthepark.org or www.tomgrant.com
The organization began when founder Sharon Darcy — now executive director of nonprofit social service agency Pathfinders of Oregon — and her friends fed a group of homeless men home-cooked meals in the South Park Blocks on a Sunday in August 1991.
Since then, the service has grown, with each meal feeding 400-to-700 people. Attendance rose this year 9 percent from 2011, says Baber, who this month becomes the operations manager, the organization’s first paid position.
The board chairman-elect is Steve DeAngelo, president of DeAngelo’s Catering and Events, which has donated to Potluck for about 20 years. Brown and Williams also serve as board members, and Brown says he loves helping however he can.
“When I was homeless, Potluck in the Park was always there on Sundays to feed me,” he says, “so I just really feel it’s my way to give back and to help other people.”