On the last Sunday of the month for the past eight years, the parish hall at St. Charles Episcopal Church has been transformed into an Italian restaurant.
Community members sit and socialize at candlelit tables draped in checkered tablecloths as they wait for their servers. Aromas of garlic bread and homemade pasta sauce waft from the bustling attached kitchen, where volunteers fill plates and carryout containers with food they have spent all day preparing.
Organizers of the community dinners say they have tried to think of everything, from the Italian and Sicilian flags that adorn the walls to the pianist playing gentle melodies. It's their goal to provide a real restaurant experience, with one exception: The meals are free.
The Two Guys and Free Spaghetti event was started in 2009 by parishioners Matt Rhead and Joe Ryan, who wanted to give families an affordable night out during the Great Recession. In addition to providing a free meal, they wanted to create a comfortable environment for community members to get to know their neighbors and meet up with friends, Rhead said.
In the beginning, they fed a few dozen people per month and paid for the meals largely out of pocket, said Kathy Hari, an event organizer. Over time, however, the dinner crowd began to grow as the church formed community partnerships and built up its volunteer base.
Now, about 150 people attend the dinner each month, she said. And as they celebrated the event's eighth anniversary March 25, organizers estimated more than 11,500 community members have been served to date.
"People sometimes say, 'Too bad there's a need for it,' but I think they're misunderstanding completely what we're trying to do here," Rhead said. "There's always a need and always should be a need to build community."
The concept of serving a free monthly meal has had a snowball effect throughout the Fox Valley. Not long after the inception of the Two Guys event, several other churches began hosting community dinners of their own, and Rhead said many of them reached out to St. Charles Episcopal Church for advice.
Among them was Gayle Taylor, who spearheaded efforts to start Third Tuesday Suppers at United Methodist Church of Geneva. The church now hosts upward of 500 people per dinner, she said, and leaders from other churches have sought her guidance.
The initiative has since caught on in towns beyond the Tri-Cities. Four years ago, St. Mark's Lutheran Church in St. Charles helped leaders of First Congregational Church of Dundee kick-start the monthly Hilltop Community Suppers, which are held every second Tuesday. Once the West Dundee church's program was up and running nearly two years ago, it sparked an interest among other churches nearby, including St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Crystal Lake.
Bethany Lutheran Church in Batavia and Fox Valley Presbyterian Church in Geneva also serve free monthly meals.
"People have picked up the mantle," Rhead said. "Little by little, we're starting to effect some meaningful change in our community. I think it's one of the biggest accomplishments we've had."
While St. Charles Episcopal Church sticks to its signature pasta dish, most other churches change their menus monthly. The dinners are intentionally held on separate days, Rhead said, allowing residents the opportunity to receive multiple free meals per month.
Each church extends an invitation to community members of all ages, religions and socioeconomic statuses, he said.
In recent years, other volunteers have taken charge of the Two Guys dinner after Rhead took a step back and Ryan moved to Florida. But even from afar, Rhead said he continues to recognize the positive impact of the free meals.
"I'm a very big proponent of thinking globally and acting locally," Rhead said. "I think this is a prime example of that."