By Sam Woods Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service Published Dec 07, 2022 at 5:31 PM

Two weeks before a planned Thanksgiving meal distribution, The Gathering’s executive director Lyn Hildenbrand got some bad news: The on-site kitchen would be out of commission for the foreseeable future. 

On Nov. 3, a chemical fire at Ascension Lutheran Church left the kitchen unusable. Hildenbrand said she is still not entirely sure what happened, and forensic tests are underway to figure that out. But she does know that people will not be able to enter the kitchen anytime soon, and that all the equipment needs to be replaced.

The Gathering’s fire and its reaction – and that of another nonprofit, Street Angels – serve as a holiday tale of commitment and perseverance. 

The fire presented a definite obstacle for The Gathering. Just not an insurmountable one. That’s because Hildenbrand knew that The Gathering would continue to serve its annual Thanksgiving dinner to meal guests at the site whether the kitchen was operational or not. 

It was a matter of keeping promises.

“We insisted we were going to be open to do Thanksgiving. We pledged to it,” Hildenbrand said. “Everybody’s committed to the fact that we’re here to feed folks.” 

Sure enough, The Gathering distributed about 100 meals to guests in one hour on Nov. 19 as scheduled at Ascension Lutheran Church, located at 1236 S. Layton Blvd. Stephanie Sprewer, meal program manager at The Gathering, said that the logistics of the distribution were hectic, with shift changes for volunteers and meals needing to be transported from a different kitchen on the North Side. 

Nevertheless, Sprewer was determined to make it work. She said that The Gathering has a commitment to its meal guests to feed them, most of whom they know by name.  

“At the end of the day, we’re exhausted. But it’s a good exhaustion,” Sprewer said. 

Volunteer Nancy Barelmann agreed that while preparing meals without an on-site kitchen can be hectic, it’s worth it when they’re able to meet the needs of their meal guests.  

She said that even without the sit-down community meal setting that The Gathering had before the pandemic, there is still a community being built that makes the choice to volunteer an easy one. 

“People who receive meals here are really appreciative, which means a lot and keeps us coming back,” Barelmann said. 

Street Angels also continues its work

The Gathering was not the only organization affected by the fire. Street Angels, a mobile homeless outreach organization, used the kitchen to cook around 130 meals at a time three times per week to distribute to people experiencing homelessness.  

Shelly Sarasin, co-founder and director at Street Angels, said that the meals are key to its service. She said that Street Angels makes around 60 different stops at different locations on the North and South sides three times per week.  

During these stops, the organization provides a hot meal, bag lunches and basic survival items while its staff works on connecting people to appropriate shelters or housing resources. 

But the meals are key to this engagement.  

“The meal is the number one tool we have in our bucket to gain someone’s trust visit after visit,” Sarasin said.  

Sarasin said that Street Angels has found another church to cook its meals while the kitchen at Ascension Lutheran Church is repaired. However, her organization must repurchase inventory and material that was destroyed in the fire. 

“We ended up losing a lot of food, so donations that people give monetarily will go toward food and supplies and containers that we lost,” Sarasin said. 

How you can help 

To help Street Angels fill such needs, donate at its website here. Find out how to volunteer here

To help The Gathering purchase new kitchen equipment or meet other material needs such as to-go boxes and bottled water, you can donate at its website here. Find out how to volunteer here