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Rural Missouri Magazine

Now There's Hope
Kirksville teens feed the city's needy

by Jim McCarty

Rachel Higgins and Megan Lesczynski display a cake celebrating the one-year anniversary of Hope's Kitchen, a meal service the two girls launched for Kirksville's needy.

In the close confines of the parish center at Kirksville's Mary Immaculate Catholic Church the smell of slowly roasting turkey fills the air. Two men struggle to unfold a balky table. Cans of green beans are being opened. People come and go, opening the door to a blast of frigid air. The hall is a beehive of activity and two teenage girls, Megan Lesczynski and Rachel Higgins, are at the center of it all.

Hope's Kitchen is open, performing a monthly service of feeding Kirksville's needy. Were it not for the devotion of the two girls dozens of Kirksville people would be wondering this day where their noon meal would be coming from.

Had you asked either of the girls a year ago whether Kirksville had any hungry people they would have answered the way many adults did when the girls started their ambitious project: "This town before this had no idea," Rachel says of the need for a free food service. "A lot of the churches were like us, they didn't know. Nobody really knew."

The idea for Hope's Kitchen came to the two in 1999 when their eighth-grade class was studying hunger issues. Rachel, who had worked in a soup kitchen in Phoenix before her family moved to Kirksville, asked whether the city had any place for the hungry. Working at that soup kitchen made an impression on Rachel.

"It was really fun so I thought if there was one here I would like to work there and if there wasn't, let's get one."

The girls make a decision

While Rachel planted the seed, it took a phone call from Megan to get the ball rolling. "She said, 'Rachel, I've been thinking about your soup kitchen idea again.' And I said OK and we got all excited and we got on the phone and called everybody."

Adds Megan, "We called the Salvation Army. We called the United Way. We called all the churches." But no one could believe the two were serious about starting such an ambitious project.

"People were kind of shocked," says Megan. "I thought at the time that's rude, they're not helping us. But now I think it was because we were two high school students and this is a huge thing. We had no idea . . . I still can't believe we are doing it."

If others were skeptical at first they were quick to get involved once Hope's Kitchen served its first meal in November 1999. "The Red Cross got behind us," Rachel says. "They knew there was a need. Once we had the Red Cross behind us people were more willing to listen to high school students."

Groups including 4-H clubs, high school clubs and people from many churches volunteered to cook, deliver meals and decorate the dining area for the meals. At first the kitchen served just a handful of people but as the girls got the word out more started coming.

Hope's Kitchen feeds more than 50 needy Kirksville residents each month.

Over time the girls learned a few valuable lessons. The first was that timing for the once-a-month meals was important. "We picked the first Saturday and that's not good," Megan says. "They have paychecks then and toward the end of the month the paychecks run out."

So the date for the meal was changed to the third Saturday. The girls also learned pride runs deep here. The people they hoped to help did not want a handout.

"At first we didn't let people give donations and we said, 'no, we are just doing this for you,' " says Rachel. "But people really wanted to (donate) and they wouldn't eat unless they did."

"Once we started accepting donations then we got a lot more people so that's good," Megan adds. "People give money and we use that to buy more food."

A need waiting to be met

On Hope's Kitchen's first anniversary last November the ranks of those served had swelled to nearly 50. Many people called to request home delivery. Others came to the parish center for some social interaction.

One reason for the increase in attendance is the giant billboard Rachel and Megan had erected on one of Kirksville's main streets. The sign and other items were paid for by a Feeding the Hungry Grant from the National 4-H Council and Kraft Foods.

"We asked for $620, but they gave us $1,240," Megan says.

Many Kirksville businesses have donated food and other supplies to Hope's Kitchen. And volunteer help has been, at times, overwhelming.

"We have a waiting list for people because so many want to help," says Megan.

Even though Kirksville's Catholic church houses the kitchen, the girls stress that this activity is bringing all of the city's churches closer together for a common goal. "People thought it was a Catholic church thing and it's not. It's just kind of an us thing," Megan says.

In the future Megan and Rachel would like to see Hope's Kitchen operate more than once a month. But they realize others will have to take on more of the work for this to be possible.

Both girls are active at Kirksville High School. The work they do for Hope's Kitchen must be sandwiched between school plays, sports and the other activities common to two high school sophomores. Somehow they manage though, and Kirksville's needy are the better for their efforts.

"I think that anytime you are doing a thing like this by the grace of God you find the time," Rachel says.

Hope's Kitchen is open on the third Saturday of every month at Mary Immaculate Catholic Church, 716 E. Washington St. in Kirksville. For more information call (660) 627-0598.

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