“They were short-handed and needed a couple more volunteers, so I got up off the couch and headed down,” said Plouff. “I’ve been here every Wednesday since.”
Nine years later, Plouff has become part of the ONT family and formed some close friendships with the guests and his peers – the other 45 diligent volunteers who prepare and serve dinner each Wednesday night at Our Neighbors’ Table.
“When it’s slow, we sit and chit chat,” said Plouff, who hand-delivers to-go meals and a friendly smile to a couple of his regular guests. “I love the interaction. It’s part of our role here.”
Photo above: Volunteer Ben Plouff (right) and ONT Meal Manager Jim Miller at the Volunteer BBQ Bash; photo right: Volunteers Lee Fleming (left) and Betty Elliott enjoy serving dessert to guests each week at the Wednesday Meal.
“His eyes light up when he sees all the cakes,” said Elliot, who often handles the dessert station. “His grandmother often says to him, ‘Aren’t we lucky to get such a good meal?’”
Our Neighbors’ Table is located in Amesbury but serves 12 surrounding towns. It began in 1992 with a spaghetti dinner attended by eight guests. Today, the organization provides a hot meal consisting of soup, a main entrée with side items, dessert and a to-go meal to anywhere between 100 and 150 guests each Wednesday evening. Each table even has its own fresh-baked bread basket, thanks to a handful of regular Tuesday volunteers, and a dedicated server who brings drinks to order and second helpings.
“This is a restaurant-quality meal,” said Jim Miller, ONT’s meal manager. “Tonight we’re serving steak tips, rice and stir-fry veggies and a shrimp and corn chowder. We’re really upping the quality of the food.”
A former chef and culinary professor, Miller took over the role a little over a year ago and enjoys lending his expertise to serve the greater good.
“If we rotated between meatloaf, roasted pork, baked fish and chicken, our guests would be happy,” Miller said. “But this isn’t a soup kitchen. We’re trying to get rid of the stigma and just provide an inviting place for folks to come and have a nice meal.”
Our Neighbor’s Table is spending most of 2017 celebrating its 25th anniversary. According to Executive Director Lyndsey Haight, the anniversary has provided her the opportunity for reflection.
“There’s something truly special about this community,” shares Haight. “When the average tenure of a volunteer is 10 years or more, you can’t deny there’s something special about this place. From 8 to 88, volunteers from all walks of life have brought their hearts and souls to create a welcoming place for all. Collectively, they have put more than 5 million meals on the table for neighbors in need.”
“It’s become much more professional and organized,” Bob says of watching the ONT market grow. “The food we throw away in this country doesn’t make sense. This restores my faith in humanity.”
Bob recalls walking a young couple to their car with their groceries one day and learning that neither of them had eaten in a couple of days. Another guest was shocked when she learned she could return to the market weekly for more food.
“I see a lot of things here that touch me. Someone will get something for a neighbor in need. Here they are in trouble themselves and they’re helping someone else,” Bob said. “I definitely think I get more out of it than I put in.”
Plouff also remembers one family who really pulled at his heart. A young mom of four whose children always said please and thank you.
“She told me one time – ‘It’s just nice to be able to tell the kids to eat as much as they want.”
Celebrate 25 years of nourishing food, kindness and service with dignity with a gift to support ONT's programs today.