"Community meal programs represent an important safety net for older residents struggling to make ends meet in a difficult economy. The activity also encourages personal independence and social engagement, which are hallmarks of livable communities for older adults," Chevrefils said.
When they arrive, the guests make themselves comfortable at folding chairs and tables that are decorated with tablecloths and disposable utensils and cups. The servers, from teenagers to retired adults, hustle in and out of the church's kitchen, delivering a plate of food to each diner. One week it's ham, another night it's spaghetti. Dessert — often homemade — is always a hit.
The volunteers who cook, serve and clean up always have smiles on their faces and offer kind words to the appreciative diners.
Food is prepared by a different church or community group each week and brought in or cooked in the church kitchen. The volunteers come from churches of other denominations, including Mennonite, Church of the Brethren, Presbyterian and United Church of Christ, as well as from Zion Evangelical. Volunteers also sign up from Girl Scout troops, the Hempfield Rotary Club, a women's club, faculty at Lancaster General College of Nursing and Health Sciences and the student council at Hempfield High School.
Businesses in the community donate money to buy the supplies.
The church describes them all as people who "want to fill your bellies and your hearts."
Brian Sherwood, 13, an eighth-grade student from Centerville, helped serve dinners alongside his mom and brother, making his way from table to table.
"It makes you feel good," he said of volunteering. "When you have a lot, and they don't, it's nice to help out."
His twin, Andrew, agreed. "You have so much to give, and they are so nice," he said of the diners.
Camaraderie over a shared meal won't guarantee that people live longer, said an expert on aging. But there are other benefits.