By Rebekah C. Doughty
The way Ben Plouff remembers it, he was sitting peacefully at home watching a favorite show on television one evening when he received a call from his wife Rita.
“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.”
Betty Elliot, who began volunteering 15 years ago through her church, Pilgrim Congregational, couldn’t agree more. While she appreciates being able to guarantee a hot meal to those in need, she most enjoys seeing the familiar faces, especially the kids. Specifically, a little boy who attends regularly with his grandmother.
“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.”
Bob Murciak has been a volunteer in the organization’s market for about seven years. He’s gone from working in a room the size of a large closet, limiting guests to a certain number of items, to helping them wheel their carts through a sized-down grocery store with a bounty of fresh produce, milk, meat and bread. The market was made possible by Amesbury business owner Greg Jardis, who donated the building that now houses Our Neighbors’ Table offices, warehouse and market, and gave generously to seed the capital campaign and now volunteers his time as a member of the Board of Directors.
“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.”
To learn more about volunteering at Our Neighbors' Table, visit our Volunteer Page!
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