The Pittsburgh Foundation

Focus on Westmoreland: Bringing More to the TableA Westmoreland County organization offers simple meals for complicated times

Five-year-old Mojave is one of about 100 people who enjoy Feeding the Spirit’s dinner at Otterbein United Methodist Church.

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By Christian Pelusi
Christian Pelusi is a senior communications officer at The Pittsburgh Foundation.

EVERY THURSDAY, a group dinner in Greensburg, Westmoreland County, begins like millions of others across America — with a prayer.

But then the meal follows its own unique script. There is a Word of the Day — such as gratitude, hope, beauty or friendship — and diners are encouraged to discuss what that word means to them in their lives as they are at that moment. At meal’s end, one of the hosts tells three jokes.

The dinner conversation flows at Feeding the Spirit, a nonprofit that began as a provider of meals to those in need. The organization is now ambitiously striving to be the provider of assistance that enables the down-and-out to work their way up-and-in. 

So why the prayer, the special word and the joke-telling at every meal served in the Otterbein United Methodist Church, which has been a welcoming presence in downtown Greensburg since 1854? “We want reflection, introspection and laughter,” says Deb Thackrah, the organization’s founder. “We did not want to be a ‘soup kitchen.’ We wanted to create a safe space where anyone in need could come and feed body, mind and soul.”

Feed the Spirit’s mission is to prepare disadvantaged individuals who have been shut out of the region’s economic revitalization to become active participants, which dovetails with The Pittsburgh Foundation’s 100 Percent Pittsburgh organizing principle, dedicated to doing the same thing on a regional scale. The inspiration for Feeding the Spirit happened for Thackrah six years ago during a run with a friend on a frigid January morning. The two were well along Greensburg’s Five Star Trail when they came upon a homeless encampment. They were drawn to one man struggling to sleep on a bench with only a newspaper for a blanket. The scene unsettled them to tears and they impulsively dug into their pockets to offer whatever money they had. 

“All the way home, we discussed what our community could do or offer to assist those in need,” she says.

Ten months later, Thackrah and her volunteers were serving 35 dinners at Feeding the Spirit’s first event. Food donations from area restaurants, businesses, churches and families have enabled the organization to serve some 21,000 meals over the past six years.

While that hardly qualifies as a side service, Thackrah maintains that Feeding the Spirit’s main mission has evolved to be one of the Westmoreland County area’s leading nonprofits for crisis intervention, pulling homeless individuals and families off the streets and into tem­porary shelter. Thackrah says she receives calls from North Huntingdon, New Kensington, Derry and even communities in Allegheny County. The reason: shelters are full everywhere and assistance agencies know Thackrah will take any call at any time.

Through donations and without any government funding, Feeding the Spirit also funds rent assistance to keep people from being evicted, medical copays, bus vouchers, clothing and toiletry donations, and gift cards for food and gas. 

“We started [crisis intervention] when we saw there were so many gaps within [government-run] social services that people were slipping through the cracks,” not because the agencies weren’t doing their jobs — they certainly have been, she says — but because there is so much demand for limited resources. 

“Providing critical services, Feeding the Spirit has strengthened the safety net that keeps many of our most vulnerable families from falling into despair,” says Phil Koch, executive director of The Community Foundation of Westmoreland County, an affiliate of The Pittsburgh Foundation. 

Indeed, Feeding the Spirit’s work is so emblematic of programs and services funded through 100 Percent Pittsburgh that the organization was awarded $5,000 from CFWC’s Greensburg Foundation Fund to support nonprofits serving Greensburg and an additional $15,000 in funding through its Healthy Community Impact Grant initiative, which Koch describes as one of the CFWC’s portals for translating the 100 Percent Pittsburgh effort to vulnerable groups in Westmoreland County. Thackrah and others managing Feeding the Spirit believe they are providing services that restore clients’ ability to access opportunities that improve their life prospects. Their volunteer network can provide more time and attention toward meeting indi­vidual needs than agencies are able to provide, and the result is a greater chance of success in helping individuals get their lives back on track.

John, one of the organization’s memorable success stories, came to his first Feeding the Spirit meal in May 2013. He had been living out of his car for two years while in the throes of alcoholism and depression. 

Feeding the Spirit helped him locate an apartment and funded his first month’s rent and security deposit. Volunteers collected fur­niture and other necessities. The group effort on his behalf brought John to tears. But the real validation came over the next several months as he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and landed a job that paid enough to cover his living expenses. He even returned to painting, one of his favorite hobbies. 

As a thank-you to Thackrah, he gave her one of his watercolor paintings with a note on the back: “Thank you for all you do with Feeding the Spirit and for helping a broken man begin to rebuild his life. God Bless You.”

Original story appeared in Forum Quarterly - Spring 2017