The Community Fellowship Dinner in Hermiston enters a new era as the free meal enters its 30th holiday season.
In addition to a change in venue — to the Hermiston High School main commons — it’s moving forward without longtime coordinator Laurie Ball-Kiser. The Hermiston woman, in declining health the past few years, suffered several strokes that eventually led to her death June 19 at the age of 64.
Chairman Gary Humphreys said Ball-Kiser possessed a fine-tuned focus on details. He lovingly likened her leadership skills to that of a drill sergeant. Tom Marks, a board member and longtime volunteer, jokingly said most drill sergeants are far nicer.
“Laurie knew what needed to be done and she was not shy at all in assigning duties,” Marks said.
Humphreys said when dealing with the sheer volume of volunteers needed to coordinate the meals — in recent years, more than 300 individuals, families, service clubs and youth organizations have assisted — they needed someone with a strong vision.
“And Laurie had that,” Humphreys said. “It’s trickled down and we’re doing it to a higher level and that’s because of Laurie.”
“She guided us and showed us the way so we can grow,” added Jan Cassens, kitchen manager and vice chair.
Ball-Kiser was recognized for her role with the meals, receiving a 2014 Christmas Spirit Award from the Good Shepherd Community Health Foundation. And, during the 2009 Distinguished Citizens Awards Banquet, Bob Severson presented her the Mayor’s Award.
Volunteers carve out community meal
Coordinating the event since 1990, Ball-Kiser was always quick to say that the twice-yearly meals were the result of a lot of people pitching in.
“Without the community involvement, we couldn’t continue to provide a place for people to share a meal with others,” she said in 2012. “It’s truly a blessing to be able to do this.”
Recognizing a need for particular skills, Ball-Kiser recruited key volunteers in the early years, including Cathy Stolz. Owner of the Chuckwagon Cafe, Ball-Kiser tapped into Stolz’s knowledge of food handling and the use of her warmer equipment.
“She had a vision and was innovative. She knew everyone in the entire community and how they connected with one another,” said Stolz, who serves on the board. “She asked the right people.”
And that’s thing, Humphreys said, once someone shows up to assist at a meal, they come back again and again. Each year also brings new volunteers. In addition, Cassens said many families have spawned multiple generations of volunteers.
Heading up the turkey carving crew, Marks beams when talking about family involvement. He’s especially proud of nephews Derek and Devon Marks. The twins, who were 20 at the time, carried on the family tradition of volunteering shortly after burying their father in 2013.
“It’s something you can do to give back to your community and it’s quite enjoyable,” Marks said. “One fellow said last year he never worked so hard having so much fun.”
Humphreys said the meals initially resembled more of a glorified potluck. However, he said, it has grown and continued to improve. Though not served on fine china, Humphreys said the food rivals that of the most flavorful and moist turkey ever prepared by grandma.
Kisers cook up holiday connection
The idea for the dinner sprouted in the mid-1980s when Joe and Janet Kiser invited Pete and Myrna Gibson and several others to share a holiday meal. Those early gatherings, Kiser said, also included Laurie Ball (she later married Kiser after his wife died), who lived across the apartment corridor.
“Back in the beginning it was kind of just a friends thing,” Kiser said. “If there was someone that didn’t have a place to go, we would invite them.”
The free community meal officially began in 1988 when the Kisers hosted 30 people on Thanksgiving. They wanted to offer food and fellowship to others who might otherwise be alone. The popularity of the meal doubled in size by Christmas and was held at the First Baptist Church (the building is now owned by Our Lady of Angels Catholic Church) where the Kisers and Gibsons were part of the congregation.
Attendance ballooned, which resulted in a move to the Hermiston Senior Center. The growth has been mind-boggling, Kiser said, serving an average of 700-800 meals and nearly 900 one year. The high school offers room for even more growth. Kiser said they are preparing for 1,000.
Friendships, Cassens said, are made and renewed during the event. People aren’t just fed, she said, they are greeted, served and treated like guests.
In addition to providing a good meal, Humphreys said the goal is to help foster human contact during the holiday season. Ball-Kiser referred to it as a “heart connection.”
“It was more than a meal, it was a ministry,” Kiser said. “And it’s still like that.”