In coming weeks, the Salvation Army will debut a new van for its Community Table program and retire the old one, thanks to Faith Evangelical Church of Billings.
Pastor Rob Johnson, of Faith Evangelical, said he and members of the church have been preparing and delivering meals for the Community Table program every Friday night for two years.
“We believe in it as part of our ministry,” Johnson said. “So, myself and others decided we needed to do what ever it took to replace Fireball as soon as possible.”
“Fireball” is a 1978 Sweetheart Bread delivery van that has, on average, traveled 100 miles each week delivering meals for the mobile outreach ministry. It is one of two vehicles in the Salvation Army's fleet dedicated to the Community Table.
“It’s definitely served its purpose, but it has become a safety issue for the driver and needs to be replaced,” Johnson said. “It rocks like a boat as it drives down the street and just isn’t reliable anymore. The food has to get out to the people.”
Through fundraising, church members raised $4,800 to go toward a Community Table replacement fund, Johnson said. With the money raised, they purchased a decade-old FedEx truck from a national fleet service.
New seats were installed, a serving window was fashioned, an oil leak was fixed and Salvation Army truck decals were printed — all in preparation for the nightly route.
About six volunteers help staff the two outreach vans that spend two to three hours each weeknight making 20 stops on different routes. Seventy-five percent of the routes are on the South Side and the others are north of the railroad tracks.
Twice a week, the program prepares hot meals, complete with an entree, a vegetable side dish, fresh fruit, rolls, rice or potatoes and milk. On other days, the van delivers meals of sandwiches and hearty soups, milk and a dessert.
On average, the program delivers 400 meals each night to people who are homeless or who can't afford to buy enough food. Each route is a 20-mile round trip and costs the nonprofit organization about $200 in gasoline each week. Last year, the Community Table served 102,000 meals. About 70 percent of those meals are provided to children.
During the summer, the Salvation Army sometimes doubles the number of meals it hands out daily.
"During the summer months, kids are out of school, so almost every one of those extra meals are for children," said Krista Ness, outreach ministries coordinator and Community Table director.
“The need has certainly grown as people are having a rougher go,” said Maj. Linda Jackson, of the Salvation Army. “The meals at least help people stretch their resources, especially at the end of the month when things get tight.”
The Montana Rescue Mission transferred the mobile outreach ministry to the Salvation Army in 2009. In spring 2011, the Salvation Army expanded the mission with the Growing Communities program focusing on a variety of local agricultural initiatives.
“The program truly is a community table — a community effort for our community members,” Ness said. “And it’s so important. You go out in these trucks and see young kids come up to the window, and you know, this might be the only meal they’ll have all day. There is a lot of addiction and a lot of homelessness here in our community.”
Johnson said a big part of the ministry is recognizing that the spiritual needs of people can’t be met if the basic needs of food and shelter haven’t been met.
“Jesus taught us that we’ll always have the poor among us, and we do,” Johnson said. “I believe it’s our responsibility — not the government’s responsibility necessarily, but the church’s responsibility — to help people with basic living items that everyone is deserving of. That is where it all starts.”
And while the mobile outreach continues to feed more people, Jackson said, it also becomes an opportunity for Salvation Army and volunteers to determine what other needs the community has that the ministry can meet.
“That’s what is so great about the partnership and cooperation of volunteers and churches together,” Jackson said. “We get to see firsthand what people need.”
Volunteer driver Ronald Schessler has been driving Fireball with Community Table for about three months since his retirement. He said he was tired of being retired, but didn’t want to take jobs away from those who needed them.
“The time for retirement always comes, and it’s time to retire Fireball,” Schessler said.