For sixteen years, a motley crew has gathered on the first Saturday of each month to enjoy food, poetry, and fellowship. Some come to fill their bellies, others come to vent their spleen; but all come to share their hearts.
Lifeline Community Dinners are well known as a melting pot with individuals from all walks of life, sharing incredible meals, served at no cost, in an environment where everyone is free to be their authentic self. The Dinners serve as an important means of tackling two critical issues: food insecurity and social isolation.
That clever combination appears to be the secret sauce that keeps people coming back. Just prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the dinners reached a record high attendance of 250 participants – not bad, especially when you consider that word of mouth and a Facebook event announcement are the primary means of advertisement.
At a recent Lifeline Dinner, several attendees related what appeals to them about the event. Tyler Parker, a 25-year-old social worker, explains that the Dinners function as a haven for those seeking a safe space. “You can just be yourself, honestly. I know that sounds cheesy, but that’s really how it is.” Linda Kolinski, a 60-year-old vendor for Toledo Streets Newspaper, focused on how the gatherings create a great opportunity for social connections: “We get fed, we make friends.”
Those who are insecure, in terms of food or housing, know they can attend the Dinners without fear of judgment or second-class treatment – and for many, that non-judgemental environment is part of the appeal. Adrian Matthews, a 61-year-old writer, lauded the social message of Lifeline Dinners as a key motivator for his attendance. “It helps people show that they are acknowledged – that they are human beings and worthy of the respect due to human beings.”
When Steve North arrived at the Collingwood Arts Center to attend a gathering of local poets in 2007, he was blown away by the raw emotion on display. “They were all mad at the world and everybody and everything in it. They were so real and authentic,” North recalled. He knew it was a scene he wanted to take part in, and soon began reading poetry with them every Tuesday.
Upon getting to know them better, he learned that many had left behind conventional employment to pursue their creative passions – making several of them, literally, starving artists. North then thought of a creative idea: what if we gave these folks both an open mic AND some food to keep them going? One fateful Saturday, he tested this idea by hooking up a microphone in his living room and making enough chili for 100 people. The results of that first gathering led to the beginning of the Lifeline Community Dinners.
Now, each Saturday, North, aided by several volunteers, hosts a big dinner at his home (or sometimes in other locations; the dinners have taken place in thirteen different locations over the years). The live microphone is still an important fixture, giving attendees, who aren’t used to being heard, an opportunity to share what is on their mind.
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“We see that those who have a small voice in the greater community can have it restored to them and when they are going to be heard – that there is somebody who thinks that what they’ve got to say, regardless of their perspective, is worth hearing – and that they are worth celebrating,” says North. Food for thought, indeed.
The Lifeline Community Dinners are open to the public and take place starting at 5:30pm on the first Saturday of every month. For more information on the dinner’s location and how to get involved, visit facebook.com/lifelinetoledo.