Charley Estrada turned toward the volunteer who’d helped her into a jacket and gave her a grin. Laurie Anderson smiled back and told her it looked great and fit perfectly.
Estrada picked up a blanket and a sweater as well from the table filled with hats, gloves, coats, scarves and more blankets folded in neat stacks.
Plastic lunch sacks lined another table just inside the drafty doorway of Kings Corner Church, where a sign reading “Free Sack Lunch” stood in the falling snow.
Estrada relies on the food from the effort known as the “sandwich ministry” and has been homeless, she said. She and her husband currently stay with a friend.
Every Saturday, a handful of volunteers give lunch to people in need at the downtown church. Among them is Debbie Mestas, who started the sandwich ministry four years ago and in January 2016 began offering blankets made by volunteers.
People started arriving last Saturday as soon as the doors opened. Many of them of are homeless, Mestas said. Some work, but need help making ends meet. Some are regulars she’s gotten to know, including a veteran who’s been intermittently homeless for years.
Others visited for the first time last Saturday, including a couple with a teenager.
The effort is a partnership between First Christian Church and the Wyoming Food Bank of the Rockies, where most of the food in the lunches is purchased for a fraction of the market cost, Mestas said.
Donations and volunteers make it possible, she said.
Mestas wanted to help Casper’s homeless population after the pastor at First Christian Church talked during a sermon about people in Casper living under a bridge. She learned from a local Salvation Army leader that many who are homeless don’t have a place to go on Saturdays, when food pantries and soup kitchens tend to be closed. She and the volunteers started with 50 sack lunches every Saturday, and now they provide 120.
Many times people don’t think about or recognize homeless people in the community, she said.
“They’re there, and that they matter, because everybody matters,” Mestas said. “And people just don’t see them. And I think everybody needs to be seen. There shouldn’t be invisible people in our society.”
Volunteers Keith and Pam Rouse greeted people as they arrived and asked them to add their names to a list, how many bags they’re picking up and if any are under 18 or older than 60. They collect the information for Wyoming Food Bank of the Rockies to help track the people they serve, Mestas said.
The Rouses have been volunteering for the sandwich ministry for about two years, because they knew their fellow church member Mestas needed help with the effort.
“She’s definitely an inspiration,” Keith said. “She doesn’t want to see anyone hungry or homeless.”
Some of the volunteers and recipients greeted one another by name.
Duane Mendoza smiled under his red hunting hat and grey mustache as he chatted and joked with the crew. He picked up a lunch, gloves and a jacket, along with a blanket for a friend at a nearby Casper Housing Authority apartment. Mendoza cleans windows for a living and currently stays at the Wyoming Rescue Mission at night, he said. He likes to help his friends and pitch in at the church too, like helping clean tables, he added. He attends services and activities other days at the Kings Corner church building owned by First United Methodist Church.
“It helps keep me warm, keeps me out of trouble,” Mendoza said, grinning.
Volunteer Laurie Anderson showed a man red mittens and pointed out that they were real wool. Then she held out a black hat with fake fur.
“It’s a Russian hat,” he said. She unraveled a grey scarf, which he quickly wrapped around his neck and nodded approvingly.
Several more volunteers from a variety of local churches gather to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and pack the bags on Saturday mornings before they’re brought to Kings Corner. Among them are groups from the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which have been helping since the beginning, as well as Sovereign Grace Church, Mestas said.
The downtown church’s location is perfect because many of those in need live nearby, Mestas said. The volunteers also deliver lunches to people at other locations including an east-side motel and once a month at Casper Youth for Christ, Mestas said.
Casper Faith Assembly of God last week donated oranges for the lunches. Every bag contained two, along with a couple bags of chips, water, juice and treats. For extra holiday treats, one First Christian Church volunteer added small boxes of her homemade fudge and another packed cookies she’d made. People also contribute other needed items including food, toilet paper and water bottles, Mestas said.
Several of those who’ve received sandwiches have given back when they can, Mestas said, including a woman who donated peanut butter and jelly. For some, life has improved enough that they no longer need to stop in.
She’s enjoyed getting to know many of those who come in for the sack lunches. Some have asked the volunteers to pray with them, for someone in their family or that they’ll get a job, she said.
“And they always tell us, ‘God bless you for doing this,” Mestas said. “I’ve had people come in and say thank you for caring about us. And we do care. Someone a long time ago said we give them lunch and hope. I guess that’s how I see it too.”