ORANGE PARK – A shopping cart was parked at the back door of the Orange Park Senior Center on Saturday, carrying two opened boxes of cereal, assorted clothes, a blanket, and water bottles. It …
ORANGE PARK – A shopping cart was parked at the back door of the Orange Park Senior Center on Saturday, carrying two opened boxes of cereal, assorted clothes, a blanket, and water bottles. It wasn’t much, but for one person eating lunch provided by The Kitchen of Clay County, it was likely the meager accounting of everything he owned.
That didn’t matter once he entered the dining room. There were no questions, no judgments and plenty of food from the group that has offered free meals for 15 years.
“I didn’t know about this,” he said while spooning hot soup with one hand and eating a sandwich with the other. “This means a lot to me.”
The kitchen handed out meals in a drive-through at the First Baptist Church of Orange Park since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only was Saturday’s undertaking the first at the senior center, but it was also the first time in years residents were allowed to come inside, sit down and be served their meals.
“When COVID hit, we weren’t allowed to serve the seniors,” said Jennifer Knight. “It’s so good to have a place where people can come in and sit down to eat. There’s such a need here in Clay County. Last year, we served just short of 19,000 meals between our three kitchens.”
Food is also provided in a drive-through at Black Creek Methodist Church in Middleburg and inside at Sacred Heart Mission Church Branch in Green Cove Springs. Like Orange Park, the hours are 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday.
The food comes from Waste Not Want Not and through other volunteer drives. Organizations like St. Catherine’s Catholic Church volunteer as servers each week.
One woman sat alone, slurping small bites of soup. A church member filled a bag with breakfast sandwiches and treats and left it beside her. She said it’s been a while since anyone reached out to help.
“Until lately, I didn’t need it,” she said, “but things happen.”
A series of unfortunate events forced her to live at an extended-stay hotel in another county. Not only did The Kitchen feed her, but they also gave her the attention and empathy she desperately missed.
“My apartment was condemned, and they changed the locks so I couldn’t get in,” she said. “All of my belongings were in there. Everything I have now is what I had in my car. I love to get out, so it’s been real difficult.”
Between Social Security and her pension, she only has $300 left after paying her hotel bill at the end of the month.
“My bills are $350,” she said. “I’ve maxed out all of my credit cards.”
Her ex-husband is helping, she said. He makes her car, insurance and cellphone payments and may try to help with her rent.
And she’s grateful for what she has.
“Now that I know about this, I will be back,” she said. “This makes a difference.”