By Kailey Fisicaro • The Bulletin

Thirty years ago, when people saw the need for a free, community meal service in Bend, they started offering one at Trinity Episcopal Church.

About 20 members of the congregation began cooking casseroles at home and bringing them to the church to serve people in need.

Today, the meal service, now known as Family Kitchen, leases its own building downtown at 231 NW Idaho Ave.

More than 250 volunteers take turns serving seven meals a week, preparing them in a commercial kitchen on site.

“It’s amazing how it’s grown,” Julie Lear, 75, of Bend, said Friday.

Phoebe DeGree, 91, of Bend, agreed.

The two have volunteered for the meal service since its start. In the beginning, they said, the meals were often casseroles or stews and gelatin dessert. Many of the diners who came in were families who needed help, DeGree said.

Now, it’s a mix of populations.

Generally, dinners are more crowded than lunches because people are off of work, Donna Burklo, Family Kitchen’s development director, said Friday, the one day a week when two meals are served.

“Certainly it’s some people who are homeless, and some people who have homes,” Burklo said.

These days, Lear and DeGree each still volunteer once a month; Lear works in the kitchen, and DeGree sets tables.

“We believe in the outreach that Trinity does,” Lear said. “I just feel like it’s something I’m supposed to do.”

Lear said she can’t imagine not volunteering at Family Kitchen: “It’s home.”

Family Kitchen moved into the building on Idaho Avenue it leases from the church six years ago. Though Family Kitchen applies for grants under the church’s nonprofit status, there’s no proselytizing and no faith requirement.

The meals range from dishes such as spaghetti in the cold months to barbecued hot dogs and hamburgers in summer.

And the name Family Kitchen is indicative of the atmosphere. During lunch Friday, one man played an upright piano. Burklo loaned the instrument, the same one she learned to play on as a child.

Framed pictures of volunteers sit on top of it.

Lear said like a lot of the volunteers, she usually sits down to eat with the diners near the end of her meal shift.

“It used to be that volunteers sat at their own table,” Lear said, recalling Family Kitchen’s beginning.

Those days are long gone. Now volunteers and diners sit together.

“People come here to be fed food but also for community,” Lear said.

That’s why Sally Lybarger, 79, of Bend, comes three times a week, she said.

For a year and a half, Lybarger was homeless, living out of her car. After more than two years on an affordable housing waitlist, Lybarger got a place at the Quimby Street Apartments in November.

It was a relief to have a home again, Lybarger said, but she’s still on a fixed income. Eating at Family Kitchen allows her to save money and see friends.

“It’s a great thing that they do here,” Lybarger said, adding that although it’s a lot of familiar faces, she also sees new people come in all the time.

The Rev. Jed Holdorph has been rector at Trinity Episcopal for about a year and a half. He said a lot of churches provide free meals, but Family Kitchen’s impact is notable because it’s been a dedicated service.

“This takes it to another level,” Holdorph said, adding the meal program was something that attracted him to Trinity Episcopal.

“That’s one of the other pieces that is unique,” Holdorph said, explaining many of the volunteers aren’t from the congregation. “This really is a community effort.”

Before Family Kitchen was founded, that kind of service was missing in Bend, said Burklo. It’s progressed now from an informal meal offering to a six-day-a-week service, with a board and three part-time staff.

“They have so many volunteers now, it’s almost too many,” DeGree said.

— Reporter: 541-383-0325,