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Community dinner allows better connections

Monroe Police Department Sergeant Paul Ryan (left) dishes up a plate of Beef Stroganoff, as Sergeant Ryan Irving hands out biscuits and butter to a guest at the weekly community dinner served by Take the Next Step at the Monroe Covenant Church on Tuesday, Dec. 6. The two Monroe officers were just a few of the volunteers to help serve the people at the dinner.

MONROE — The men and women gather at the doors of the Monroe Covenant Church at 202 S. Sams Street each Tuesday evening, waiting.
Many are homeless or low-income individuals. Some wait with all they possess, and some have their young children in tow.
In the winter months, the need for a hot meal is greater and a weekly community dinner given by Take The Next Step at the church helps. A slew of volunteers and community organizations serve the food for the weekly dinners.
On Dec. 6, the Monroe Police Officers Association served, and officers made new connections with individuals they had encountered before while on patrol.
The last time officers served, an officer told Take the Next Step’s director Donna Olson that he thought the nonprofit “enabled” the homeless to stay homeless, she said. “But after he served and seeing a few of the same people he had seen out
on patrol and making a different kind of connection, he changed his mind about us and about them.”
Olson founded Take The Next Step 11 years ago. The nonprofit organization assists low-income individuals with basic needs, childcare, shelter, life skills classes and homeless youth outreach. The organization wants to see people get back on their feet and succeed. They also want to help educate and empower children. Olson said she saw the need for more programs for the homeless and youth while teaching GED certificate classes at Everett Community College.
“It keeps growing,” Olson said. “We started the drop-in center first, then saw the need for a hot meal and now we’re offering life skills classes after Tuesday’s community dinners and they’re pretty popular.”
The life skills classes teach methods for handling issues that include parenting, budgeting, support group classes in dealing with stress and depression. Other services focus on family life, such as teen mother support and afterschool programs that help with homework. Olson said many of the children that come to Take the Next Step after school struggle with reading and math and their parents cannot help them because English is not their primary language. The organization is searching for volunteers, especially bilingual volunteers.
Olson greets the dinner guests inside the church door each week. She knows most of them on a first-name basis, and asks them how their week has been or about their
health. Some of them bustle through the doors, eager to
greet Olson and tell her any news they may have. Others simply nod or smile, then make their way to the dining hall.
“I’ve always loved helping people in need and my personal saying that I keep close to me is ‘to treat others as you’d like to be treated,’”
Olson said. “We make a relationship with (the homeless) so we can help them, talk to them, and they trust us.”
Around 50 people were at dinner last Tuesday, with the police officers serving. Olson said it was a “light” night, and the dinners usually get more crowded later in the month where they feed up to 120 people.
Police spokeswoman Debbie Willis was there to serve. She said the officers plan to volunteer at a dinner night each quarter.
“So far, the community has been responsive and we like meeting them in a different way,” Willis said. “Serving them dinner does impact officers’ relationship with the homeless individuals,
because it’s a positive experience they remember.”
Police Sgt. Paul Ryan heartily agreed.
“I think we all like to try and humanize our profession and this is a great way to build a relationship with people we may have already contacted in the field,” Ryan said. “When people see police in their homes or on the street, sometimes they don’t think positively, but serving them in this dinner, I’ve seen a few familiar faces that I was able to talk to them and give them safety reminders and honestly, it’s nice and refreshing to make these connections because of dinner instead of… because of work.”
The people congregated at the tables, talking and sharing stories while some of the younger children bounced here and there. One of the children invited Sgt. Ryan to his Christmas concert at his school that night. Ryan said he’d come and the child’s eyes lit up with anticipation of his new police officer friend coming to the show.
With each weekly comm-unity dinner and other programs, Take the Next Step sees relationships fostered again and again.
“We’re the place where the help and the need meet,” Olson said proudly. “Monroe is a very, very caring community and there’s always organizations willing to help and to serve. That is what makes this community thrive – they do unto others as they would have done to them.”


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