Community breakfast serves those in need

James Darling has been living on the streets of Elgin since his divorce, the death of a parent, and his longtime addiction to alcohol converged in a perfect storm.

"Too much at one time," he said.

Formerly employed for many years as a forklift driver, Darling now hunkers down nights in emergency warming shelters or an old public restroom he discovered. He gets by with a backpack to store his worldly possessions and relies on community meal programs to stave off hunger and keep himself alive.

That means his day begins with a free breakfast at Vineyard Church of Elgin.

Since sometime in the late 1990s - no one is sure of the year - Vineyard has been hosting a community breakfast day in and day out, except weekends and holidays. Doors open at 6:30 a.m. for anyone who's hungry, homelessness not required. Quite a few of the clientele, in fact, actually do have a place to stay but either no kitchen or a limited food budget.

Meals are brought to the church by volunteers who stay up late or get up early to build casseroles or flip pancakes at home. These days they cook for 60 people - mostly men, plus a handful of women. Last year the number of breakfasts served approximated 15,000, including second helpings when there was enough. That's a whole lot of eggs and potatoes, to be sure.

Nancy Merlak, who organizes the ministry, said the meal usually features breakfast casseroles, pancakes, or biscuits and gravy. There may be ham or sausage, possibly oatmeal or grits. Sometimes volunteers change up the menu with dinner fare like chili, chicken and rice, or mostaccioli, and they often provide fresh fruits, juices and pastries.

"I don't tell them what to bring," Merlak said. "If you're volunteering, whatever you bring, we'll eat."

Except from May to October, that is. During warmer weather, hot meals are suspended and volunteers are asked to supply sandwiches of any kind - generally two per person so one can be brown-bagged with fruit, granola bars or cookies and saved for later in the day.

Lunch is available to the homeless every midday at Wayside Center, near Elgin Community College, and supper is provided every night at one of seven local churches in the Elgin Soup Kettle program.

The breakfast ministry began when Vineyard's Pastor Tom Severson realized nothing was being offered in the morning; he and Alice Porter, a layperson who since has died, began putting out the word that Vineyard would do the cooking.

For a long time, Porter and other members of Vineyard did do all the cooking; then, as area schools and churches learned about the breakfast, they wanted to help. Today, Merlak schedules students from Westminster Christian School in Elgin, Immanuel Lutheran School in East Dundee, and a local home-school group.

Churches with regular dates include First United Methodist Church, Harvest Bible Chapel and West Ridge Community Church, all of Elgin; Immanuel Lutheran Church, East Dundee; St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church, Algonquin; St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church, Hampshire, and St. John's Lutheran Church, Union. Employees from GE Capital Corporation, Hoffman Estates, and GE Healthcare, Barrington, cover a few days a year.

Gene Heckenberg, an Elgin-based missionary with International Teams, is there every day to interact with the breakfast crowd. He sees some of the same people later in the day at Wayside, where he continues his ministry by leading Bible studies, teaching computer classes, serving as a court advocate, and driving people to doctor appointments.

"Developing relationships is a long-term process," Heckenberg said. "One of the goals of the breakfast is to be seen and be trusted so we can help them with their other needs - spiritual and physical."

Over the years, the daily breakfast has provided many opportunities to meet those other needs. In the winter, there's the blessing of a warm building where those without a home can hang out after breakfast on the coldest days and watch a movie. Often there are winter hats, gloves or scarves available.

Always there is the opportunity for Bible studies or teaching DVDs for those who are interested. Severson and Heckenberg also keep an eye out for people who might be open to one of several drug and alcohol recovery programs in the area.

"I'm guessing there may be 100 people over the life of this ministry who have gone from some connection to the breakfast into a rehab program," Severson said.

"We would have people tell us at the breakfast that something is different here," he said. "They say, 'I don't feel like I have to perform or conform in order to receive the love that you guys have here.'"

Even for those who are not ready for life change, needs are still being met.

"They're here for the food and a warm place," Merlak said. "And that's OK. We still want them to know that Jesus loves them. (Feeding them) is what he tells us to do."

For information about volunteering with the homeless breakfast, contact Vineyard Church of Elgin at (847) 697-8001 or visit the website at The church is at 220 Division St., Elgin.

  Nancy Merlak organizes the community breakfast ministry at Vineyard Church of Elgin. "(The guests) are here for the food and a warm place," Merlak said. "And that's OK." Brian Hill/
  Gene Heckenberg of Algonquin hands out some cereal at a recent Vineyard Church community breakfast. In addition to helping with the meal, Heckenberg leads Bible studies, teaches computer classes, serves as a court advocate, and drives people to doctor appointments. Brian Hill/
  Volunteer Edward Hayes of Elgin helps clean up after serving a hot breakfast to the homeless at Vineyard Church, in Elgin. Hayes had been through the program himself as a guest years ago, he said. Brian Hill/
  Kathy Long of West Dundee hands out some hot oatmeal as volunteers from all over serve a hot breakfast to the homeless at Vineyard Church, in Elgin. Brian Hill/

The Vineyard Church of Elgin serves a free, hot breakfast to the homeless from 6:30 to 8 a.m. Monday through Friday at 220 Division St., Elgin. Volunteers are needed to serve, clean up, donate food, and donate clothing. Call (847) 697-8001 or email nmerla

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