'We treat people like people': Small church near St. Charles serves meals for homeless

Most large-scale Thanksgiving community dinners - a regular thing before the pandemic, put on by churches, charities and community groups - still haven't returned to the suburbs.

But in a tiny church sanctuary near St. Charles Thursday afternoon, strangers and friends shared food, faith and fellowship as they have here every year since 2008. That's when the H.E.L.P.S. Ministry - a Christian congregation that today numbers two dozen - purchased the building from the Salvation Army.

Terina Erb has been running the dinner for most of that time, overseeing a volunteer operation that includes members of her church and others throughout the suburbs. They set up 82 place settings at tables scattered throughout the church, which is a few blocks west of Route 25 in the Valley View neighborhood of unincorporated St. Charles Township.

"Most people we serve are homeless. We want to set it nice for them," Erb said.

The church's pastor, Angelo Valdes, got the idea for a sit-down, family-style community dinner after attending the cafeteria-style dinners that are more common.

"We do dishes. We don't do Styrofoam. We treat people like people," Valdes said. "We call them our friends."

As people started to arrive by 1:30 p.m. and took their seats, the volunteers started bringing out the turkey and all the side dishes. All of the food was provided by Food For Friends, a Palatine-based Christian organization that has been serving Thanksgiving meals to those in need since 1994.

When dinner service was done, the volunteers - as is customary at every community dinner the church has hosted - took their seats next to those they had just served.

Mark Gilbert, who was working in the kitchen during Thursday's event, was back for his fifth dinner at H.E.L.P.S. The Palatine resident and attendee of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington remembers Valdes' telling volunteers at a past dinner to go talk to someone who looks least like you.

It's those new friendships that keep volunteers like Gilbert coming back.

"We started talking and realized we have a lot more in common. It's about food, but it's also about human connection, too," Gilbert said.

The church's free community meals - not only on Thanksgiving, but also Christmas, Easter, Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day - are mostly promoted by word-of-mouth. The church doesn't have a major online or social media presence.

Most of the people who were there Thursday have vehicles or were able to get a ride. One attendee, James Darling, walked two hours from Elgin. He's a regular at the church's community dinners.

"I know most everybody here," Darling said.

  Curt Oswald and Raquel Gomez serve turkey and all the sides during the annual Thanksgiving dinner at H.E.L.P.S. Ministry near St. Charles. "It started out as something to do and it's become a regular thing," said Oswald, who has been coming to the event seven years. "We're happy to serve." Christopher Placek/
  Volunteers help prepare family-style Thanksgiving meals Thursday in the kitchen of H.E.L.P.S. Ministry near St. Charles. Christopher Placek/
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