By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT — It is almost 11 a.m. on a Friday as Waunita Sullivan gathers volunteers from the Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency in a circle to pray before they serve take-out lunch to guests of Café on Vine. Sullivan’s heartfelt prayer includes an intercession. “Bless our guests, keep them healthy and safe.”
Kitchen Manager Lauri Jones demonstrates how to arrange and seal the food on the disposable plates so that the meal remains intact as volunteers distribute the bagged meals to guests at the café’s window in central Davenport. Clouds have settled in on the first day of April and a line of guests begins to form outside the café.
Café on Vine has been serving to-go meals for a little more than two years throughout the COVID-19 pandemic — beginning March 16, 2020, Sullivan says, the date committed to memory. She has been longing to welcome back guests to the dining room, to sit down to a meal, to enjoy one another’s company and to build community.
Sullivan anticipates the long-awaited reopening of the dining room May 2, provided the café has enough volunteers to prepare, serve and clean up. She needs volunteers for breakfast and for lunch, Monday through Friday. Breakfast volunteers work from 6:30-8 a.m., and lunch volunteers work from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. She needs about 12 volunteers daily to make it work. The café also serves lunch on Saturday and dinner on Sundays, when church and civic groups volunteer. Call (563) 324-4472 if you’d like to volunteer or have questions.
Many of the older volunteers stepped back from the café because of the pandemic. “We lost a lot of stalwart volunteers,” said Micah Kiel, president of Café on Vine’s Board of Directors. “We need volunteers; we can’t do it without them.”
Guests staying overnight at Humility Homes and Services’ shelter (less than a block away) “would be over the moon excited for the dining room to reopen,” said Michelle Plasschaert, Shelter and Outreach Services supervisor for HHSI. “The participants have really missed that sense of community they got when they were in the dining room. Just being able to sit down at the table and have a meal with other people. With COVID, we have gotten away from that sense of community.”
Kiel, who volunteers for breakfast every Thursday, said, “We want to do more than just feed the hungry. The ability to encounter guests is hampered when you are serving people from a window. In the poor, we encounter Christ. That’s where we meet Christ.” Kiel, a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, has taken students to Café on Vine to volunteer. “We talk about not just the need for charity, but for justice.” In-person encounters with guests will enable students to understand better the challenges that guests face.
The pandemic figures into Café on Vine’s plans to offer a hybrid reopening, Sullivan said. “We want to make sure we are practicing social distancing. Everyone will get their food at the window in disposable containers and be invited to come inside to eat or take their meal to go.” That option will allow for better spacing at tables while still encouraging community and ensuring the safety of guests and volunteers, many of whom are older adults, Sullivan said. As more volunteers participate, the café will re-introduce non-disposable dishware.
Among the lessons learned from the pandemic, “we realize how much we enjoyed the socialization piece, getting to know our population,” she said. “A lot of our veteran guests are no longer with us because of turnover. It’s a very transitory population. We lost a number of them to COVID.”
Around 50% to 60% of the guests are homeless, the others may have homes and jobs but don’t earn enough to make ends meet. All are food insecure, she said. Most guests come from Scott County (around 80%), some come from Rock Island County (around 15-18%) and the rest are people passing through the area.
The café serves around 150-160 people a day toward the end of month, but lower numbers earlier in the month. Sullivan sees the number of guests starting to rise. She realizes that guests will have to get used to the protocols and expectations for the dining room. “I think it will be nice to reopen,” Jones, the kitchen manager, said. However, she also expects some hiccups as guests, staff and volunteers familiarize themselves with a new routine.
Sullivan said she prays that when the dining room reopens, guests “will get to know us as much as we get to know them.” Plasschaert says, “Any time we can bring people together, it is a good thing.” Café on Vine “has always been there for us,” she added. “They could have shut their doors (during the pandemic) and they didn’t.”