St. Anthony’s Family Center provides much more than food to fill empty stomachs. It’s a place of rest — spiritually feeding the dozens of visitors that come to the center weekly. It’s a place of encouragement — opening its doors to people of all backgrounds. It’s a place where community grows.
The family center, located behind St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, opened in the 1970’s with the funding of Catholic Charities. At the time, its purpose was to counsel those in need with assistance regarding their financial responsibilities. Throughout the years, the family center has evolved into a place where people from all walks of life can go to receive groceries, a free meal, or even hope.
Director of the St. Anthony’s Family Center Shelly Taylor, said she never thought she would be doing the kind of work she does today, but that she knows God led her to serve these people through this ministry.
Each week, the family center serves around 40 families. On Tuesdays from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., a home cooked meal for anyone who wants to eat and be a part of their special community is provided. Groceries are distributed after Tuesday’s meal as well as on Friday mornings from 9:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m.
Most of the food at the center comes from the Feeding America food bank in Battle Creek, Michigan. All of the food supplied from Feeding America are “leftovers” from big grocery stores which are then distributed to food pantries across nearby counties. Other donations are made from the Jonesville Walmart and a small portion is donated by parishioners of St. Anthony’s.
When Taylor took the job as director, she knew that the family center was not only going to be about providing food, but would also be used for evangelization.
“I wanted to ask each person that came in if I could pray with them, if they wanted me to,” Taylor said. “Believe me, it was difficult because it wasn’t something I was comfortable doing in the beginning, but once I started doing it it just flows. It’s so simple.”
Clients coming into the center come from different faith backgrounds. Most people have a spiritual base, but Taylor says most clients, “somewhere along the line, they fell away.”
“We want to be brave and serve them, I don’t think we are as interested in inviting them to be Catholic, as we are to just to be Christians and to get them to know that God loves them,” Taylor said.
Taylor said she still seeks to plant seeds of hope and faith in each of the people who come to the center.
“I ask everyone who walks through this door, ‘Do you want prayer today?’,” she said. “‘There are no strings attached, I’m here to offer you prayer today.’ Some people look at me and I just say, ‘Maybe next time you come back’.”
Taylor has the opportunity to sit with each client who comes to receive food while their order is being processed. During that time, Taylor gets to know each of her clients.
“They always have something on their mind when they come in,” Taylor said.
Taylor also said she sees past the differences in socioeconomic background and faith, wanting to simply be kind and welcoming to the people in front of her who could be facing challenges.
“We know how this world is and we feel like this is our little piece that we can do to help people get in touch with God again,” Taylor said.
At the Tuesday lunches, a small talk based on the Gospel is given, in addition to a story about the feast day of a saint. Although the clients may not be Catholic, Taylor said “they are always interested in learning about the faith.”
“That’s where the little seeds are planted, even if they don’t ever come to our church or another church, they are still getting fed,” Taylor said.
Diana, a client of the family center who asked that her last name not be used, is a mother of 7 children and is now temporarily living in a trailer park. With a warm and gentle spirit she shared the challenges she has faced.
“The prayer, it’s comforting,” Diana said as she walked into Taylor’s office.
Although many clients are apprehensive about prayer, about 98 percent of them allow Taylor to pray with them, Taylor said. The prayers are no magical way out of their situation, but rather a way to keep these people going.
“Most of them tell me, if anything, when we’re praying, they feel uplifted and they feel like they can go on again,” Taylor said. “If anything, they get peace for the moment.”
The family center could not continue to run without the 10 dedicated volunteers at the center. These volunteers, some parishioners of St. Anthony’s and some non-parishioners, devote countless hours of their time and energy into serving the people of their community.
Susan LeFevre has volunteered at the family center for the past five years and spends five days a week giving her time and heart to the people of her community, of which she has been a part her whole life. LeFevre does everything from cleaning the facility, to picking up food from Walmart, to cooking and serving lunch on Tuesday’s, to stocking shelves, to delivering food to those who can not make it to the center. Most importantly, she works on building personal relationships with every person who walks through the door.
LeFevre understands the needs of every person who walks through the door, down to which food preferences each person has to what kind of spiritual needs they have. She hopes that by welcoming all people, she clearly demonstrates her desire to make each person feel fully known and fully loved.
“They’re here. They’re here for a reason. So we have to do what we do best,” LeFevre said.
Before the volunteers begin to serve their fellow citizens of Hillsdale, they always begin with prayer , knowing that their service must come from the grace of God.
“We could be very judgemental people if we wanted to be, so we pray every day before we meet people,” Taylor said. “Before we serve people, we pray together.”
All volunteers at the family center have their own story and all recognize the importance of serving others without stopping to judge or question whether someone is worthy of their service.
“I pray and give all my worries to God and I see a path to go on and I go on it, I go for it, I don’t take two seconds to think about what I’m going to do because if it’s a path open for me to say, ‘Hey you need to go do this,’ just don’t worry about what happens,” LeFevre said.
Those who walk into the Family Center in need of food serve the volunteers just as much as the volunteers serve them by demonstrating what true strength and vulnerability is.
Taylor invites any person to be apart of this inspiring and heart touching community:
“Have lunch together with people, come down and have lunch with us, it doesn’t matter if you need food or not, just to come down and sit with people they love it.”