February 25, 2024

8th annual Holiday Peace Meal: ‘Coming together like this is part of how we heal’

It was cold and wet outside, but warm feelings filled Calvin Hall at First Presbyterian Church of Ashland on Friday
By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news

Piano music played in the background as a calming fireplace displayed on the screen at the eighth annual Holiday Peace Meal on Friday afternoon in Calvin Hall at the First Presbyterian Church of Ashland.

Smiling volunteers helped attendees at tables full of warm blankets, socks, scarves and hand warmers galore, as well as gifts for children, while others dished up an early Christmas dinner with all of the fixings. Jason and Vanessa Houk with Southern Oregon Jobs with Justice (SOJWJ) organize the meal each year.

“There’s this magic that’s created every time we get together at a big event like this and it’s like — we always call what we do ‘love in action’ and I really see it on these big event days,” Vanessa Houk told Ashland.news. “The beautiful giving that happens and also the receiving and the gratitude — It’s just priceless to me.

“People will come up to me six months from now … and they’ll go, ‘Vanessa, Vanessa!’ And they’ll tell me how much this meal meant to them,” said Vanessa Houk. “They were in a dark place. A lot of times, the holidays bring up a lot of grief and a lot of really hard feelings and they don’t know what to do. Coming together like this is part of how we heal.”

Jason Houk said organizers prepared for 150 to 200 attendees this year.

“We were worried that the rain might keep people away,” he added, as guests continued to trickle in.

Cold raindrops fell from a partly sunny sky as young and old came together for community inside the church. But it was warm inside.

Volunteer Karen Hill-Wagoner has a special reason she helps the homeless. Her nephew is homeless and she hopes that wherever he is, he has what he needs. It’s one of the reasons she’s so involved with serving the homeless population. Ashland.news photo by Holly Dillemuth
“This is like a potluck,” said volunteer Karen Hill-Wagoner. “People just made them at home and brought them.”

Hill-Wagoner, a festive Christmas tree headband on her head, stood near the line for the Peace Meal itself. Hill-Wagoner volunteers with a community meal service in Lithia Park throughout the year as well as Peace Meal.

Her heart for helping the homeless comes from having a nephew who is in a similar situation.

“He’s homeless and I don’t know where he is,” she said, “and I just hope wherever he is, someone’s feeding him.”

It’s her hope to help as she can to take care of those who need it, whether they are seniors, Southern Oregon University students or simply hungry, by facilitating sharing either food or community.

“I also volunteer for the (Ashland Community) Food Bank and we have seen a drastic increase in families signing up for food boxes,” she said, noting they’re serving 150% more clients than last year.

Debbie Neisewander of Ashland, a homeless advocate locally for about 10 years, said she and a few others in town are working on creating a small, unaffiliated group called “Rogue Resiliency” that will work toward helping meet the needs of the homeless where they are at.

“Since I’ve been advocating and being so vocal, I’m starting to get other people who want to be a part of an outreach team, because we don’t have outreach,” she added. “We’ll see what we can do collectively to make a difference.”

Jason Houk stepped outside to chat more with Ashland.news about the event.

“We wanted to be in the downtown, that’s where the folks that we serve are used to getting their services,” he said. “We know that there are people not here today because they couldn’t make it down here.

“We feel that there’s an effort to push community (meals) … and services out of the downtown.”

He operates meals throughout the year on Thursdays and Fridays, so he has a method to organizing the weekly Peace Meals.

He welcomed attendees as they entered through the front door, offering a cheery “Merry Christmas!”

“We’re really grateful to the Presbyterian Church for opening their space for us,” Houk said. “We weren’t sure where we were going to have this party. We thought we were on a path to using a different building but that didn’t work out. Working with the city has been pretty frustrating, but the Presbyterian Church, Pastor Dan has been really generous and has not asked anything of us other than cleaning up, leaving the space as we found it.”

Homeless advocate Debbie Neisewander holds out a plate of food at the eighth annual Holiday Peace Meal held on Friday at First Presbyterian Church in Ashland.

Out front of the church, Houk pointed to a parked RV that has recently been obtained to help launch a mobile food service in January.

“We just purchased that, it’s going to be our mobile kitchen,” he said, noting the RV will be converted to a commercial kitchen. “We bought it last month, it’s very new … This is the first time we’ve ever had it out in public really.”

Houk said the goal is to start using the RV next month, with the tentative name of “The Peace Meal Mobile Kitchen,” which will allow him to take the meals on wheels to those who need it.

“Right now, we show up at the park and we set up tables and people bring food,” he said. “By the time folks get it, it’s usually not warm anymore.”

“Since we don’t have a space this winter, we’re going to get a couple space heaters … Our thought is, we’d be able to pull up with the heaters and be able to create a warm space and space for folks to eat.”

They plan to roll up to offer breakfast to those who camp out at the “Night Lawn,” located behind the Ashland Police Station, where anyone can camp overnight if they abide by city-set parameters.

Houk said the RV may also be used at the city’s new emergency shelter on Ashland Street, since it doesn’t have a commercial kitchen.

“Ideally, we’re hoping that it will be volunteer-run,” Houk said. “We’ll get a team of folks that are trained and competent in using it and getting it where people need food. So right now, we’re learning how to use it ourselves.”

Mealtime conversation
Back inside the dining hall, a group of people who describe themselves as homeless eat together.

Mark Walley, 65, and his partner Kerrie Keef, 60, each had full plates Friday as they ate and talked together with the group.

“I don’t like it, I hate it,” Walley said, of being without housing.

He was a painting contractor at one point in his life, before he became houseless after age 50.

The couple lives in a vehicle and like many others living houseless, it’s hard to keep warm during the winter months especially. It’s also hard to keep blankets clean.

Walley and Keef expressed gratitude about the meal, but their comments reflect the reality of their daily experience.

“I need a house, I need a place to live,” Walley said.

He and Keef are both disabled and depend on Social Security benefits to survive. On top of everything, Keef has stage 4 Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and is on blood thinners.

“I can’t get the rest of my chemo until I’m housed,” Keef said.

She was diagnosed seven years ago, and the cancer has consistently gotten worse.

“There are people that have overcome the biggest obstacles that are in this room right now,” Vanessa Houk said. “I have people who are in recovery, there’s people that have had really serious health problems.”

While the meal helps many like Walley and Keef, the couple emphasized what they and many houseless individuals really need is a roof over their heads.

Earlier on the other side of the room, Neisewander showed off a plate full of turkey, ham, deviled eggs, meatballs and vegetable sides .

“And this is only half of it,” she said, walking toward a table, where she sat with other attendees.

“Diet’s important and a lot of these (people), it’s hard to get a healthy meal every day.”

“Events like this are critical to wellbeing,” she added. “Mental and physical.”

While at the table, she was greeted by many who walked by.

“The one thing that I do is to try to develop relationships and try to gain trust, because these folks don’t trust a whole lot of people and it’s always nice for those folks to have someone in their corner,” Neisewander said. “I can’t really give them hope, I can’t give them housing, I can’t give them money, but I do my best to let them know that somebody cares, and that’s about all I can actually do.”

Reach Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at hollyd@ashland.news.