Free concert will kick off celebration of the Banquet

SALEM – A musician who donates his time entertaining visitors during the Banquet in Salem will kick off the party to celebrate 10 years worth of community meals with a free concert July 12.

The benefit event featuring the music of Will “Butch” Hallewell of Salem will take place from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the band shell at Waterworth Memorial Park. The concert is free, but donations will be accepted to benefit the Banquet.

Referred to as the “guitar man” by some regulars, Hallewell plays a mix of country western, love and patriotic medleys several times during the year and during holidays at the Banquet. Last year he played a free concert at his church, Holy Trinity Lutheran in Salem, with all donations going to the Banquet. He recently released a second CD of his original music.

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church Pastor Connie Sassanella, who serves as president of the Banquet Board, said he “brings a sense of joy and community” whenever he plays and many people join him in song.

“He’s had a connection to the Banquet and he’s been generous about giving his time,” board Treasurer Bill Wilkins, former pastor of Salem Emmanuel Lutheran Church, said.

Kindness and generosity describe what the Banquet’s all about, of giving time freely to help others who need a friendly ear, some companionship or a good meal.

Organizers will hold a series of celebrations throughout this year and next year to recognize the Banquet’s 10-year anniversary. The efforts began on Sept. 20, 2004 when volunteers from Emmanuel Lutheran Church served the first Banquet with 60 people in attendance. A test run was done the week before with a meal served to volunteers.

Now about 200 people show up for the weekly Banquet, which is held from 5 to 7 p.m. every Monday at the Memorial Building. Another meal was added from 5 to 7 p.m. the fourth Thursday of each month.

The Banquet started out with four sponsor groups who would take turns sponsoring the meals and providing the 25 or more volunteers needed to cook, serve and clean up, but the numbers grew within the first year.

Now there are about 40 sponsoring groups who take care of meals, coming from churches, businesses, community groups, service groups, clubs, school groups and families. Some sponsor memorial meals to honor a family member, friend or co-worker. Sassanella said it’s not always the same groups each year, either. They’ve even had groups from Columbiana and Winona and some of the larger employers in Salem host meals, such as Salem Community Hospital and Walmart.

Wilkins said it’s different from their work atmosphere since they’re all on the same level when they walk through the door.

“We’re working together to do something good in the community,” he said. “They’re fulfilling a real need. There are people in our community who don’t eat as well.”

Sassanella said they build a camaraderie with each other and the people they serve and are encouraged to talk with the people.

When there’s an open spot, they have a group called Friends of the Banquet fill in, made up of many volunteers from other sponsoring groups. They also have a core group of volunteers at every meal known as the “blue aprons” who help guide the sponsoring group members, who wear green aprons.

The Banquet was born out of a desire by some clergy to have a feeding ministry, with the churches of those four ministers forming the nucleus known as the Banquet in Salem. The ministers included the late Jack Austin of Salem First Christian Church, Sassanella, Wilkins and Rev. Tom Eisweirth, now formerly of St. Paul Catholic Church. A fellow pastor from Good Hope Lutheran in Boardman, Pastor Bob Quaintance, used to be in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where the idea of the Banquet originated.

The community there serves a meal called The Banquet and provided the Salem group with information and a how-to video. A community meeting was held to garner interest and 100 people showed up, with many stepping forward to volunteer. The group applied for and received status as a not-for-profit organization, so any contributions received could be tax-exempt and the group could apply for local grants.

“The word ‘banquet’ was key,” Wilkins said, explaining that it’s presented as a community meal for fellowship.

Anyone can come, needy or not. Many who come have sponsored meals themselves, which costs $500 to $600 for a meal.

“We have a significant number of folks who come because they need companionship,” Wilkins said.

Sassanella said the Banquet meets a lot of needs. Even truckers coming through town who see the sign in front of the Memorial Building stop in for a meal, usually donating money before they leave.

The Banquet affects the volunteers as much as the recipients. Wilkins told how a fellow who sponsors a meal saw a couple of women carrying groceries on the street and he recognized them from the Banquet, picked them up and gave them a ride home. He would have never done that before his experience at the Banquet.

Meals vary, but each one is hot and includes a meat, fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, soup or salad, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, desserts, milk, water, punch, coffee or iced tea. Fresh Mark has donated hams and the area Dairy Boosters provide dairy products. They have a meat grant through the Salem Community Foundation from SAFCO which provides food for children. Tables are decorated and there’s a play area for children.

After everyone’s been fed, they have a takeout system for any food left over.

The Banquet uses the Memorial Building free of charge and the Banquet board provides the paper products and items needed, such as silverware and trays, for each meal.

Other board members include Randy Colian as vice president and Patty Colian as secretary.