Serving good eats, blessings at Lord's Gym

Software developer boosts group’s meal service with gift of much-needed appliances

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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You can help

You can make donations to The Lord's Gym at any Umpqua Community Bank or mail to P.O. Box 1768, Vancouver, 98666.

What Violet Adams can see is enough to convince her that blessings are afoot.

Even though Adams is legally blind, the volunteer cook can still make her way around the brand-sparkling-new kitchen that was recently installed at the Lord’s Gym, a Christian community center serving hundreds of hot meals every week.

The Great Recession sent that number soaring, organizers say, and it hasn’t come back down — so it’s great that a corporate donor found fit to replace the old kitchen — which was skidding along with a couple of residential stoves and refrigerators — with a full complement of commercial-grade equipment, from the ovens and steam tables and coolers all the way to the new drywall and ceiling and fire-sprinkler system.

“God has blessed us with good donations,” said Adams. “This is going to make a difference for a lot of people.”

Here’s how it happened, according to facilities director Jamie Kingsbury. An elderly gentleman who comes around regularly to play billiards at the Lord’s Gym “noticed what we were doing on Fridays,” Kingsbury said.

What volunteers were doing on Fridays was scurrying around to crank out upwards of 250 to 300 free, hot meals for people who line up for dinner in the evening. “He kept saying, ‘In this kitchen?’ ” Kingsbury recalled with a laugh.

The elderly fellow eventually pulled his son in to take a look at the place, and the reaction was the same. “ ‘You’ve got to fix this. I’ve got to do something,’ ” is what the son said, according to Kingsbury. The need was actually acute, Kingsbury added, because city and county building and health inspectors were also zeroing in on the building’s problems. The Lord’s Gym is housed in what used to be Uncle Milt’s Pipe Organ Pizza Company restaurant, a big building at the corner of Fourth Plain and Grand. The restaurant closed in 1999.

Kingsbury was skeptical despite the big promises, he said, because he’s all too used to hearing well-meant offers of help that go nowhere. “When’s it going to happen? Is it really going to happen? It’s all in God’s hands,” he summed up.

It really happened. The billiards player’s son was John Ledoux, the CEO of Camas company Plexsys Interface Products Inc. Plexsys is a software engineering firm that develops aerospace simulations and war games for defense contractors.

Ledoux delivered four stainless double-door freezers that “almost tripled our capacity,” Kingsbury said.

“That’s when we started to believe,” said Lord’s Gym manager Joe Varella.

That was about a year ago. And even that expanded storage capacity didn’t change the fact that volunteer cooks like Adams still had to juggle and strategize to cook everything adequately and then keep it hot while working with a couple of puny residential stoves.

So the new stoves and steam tables, refrigeration equipment and structural improvements to the building itself were a heap of blessings atop that first one, Adams said.

Many of the contractors who upgraded the space and installed the equipment also worked for free, Kingsbury said, and the city and county officials were “easy to work with.” Meanwhile, the whole Lord’s Gym cooking operation moved up the street to Memorial Lutheran Church — with the hot food shuttled back down to the Lord’s Gym for meal service.

The total value of the donated equipment and labor is something like $100,000, Kingsbury said.

“It is totally amazing,” said Adams. Now she’s got a convection oven as well as several large conventional ones, steam tables to keep cooked food hot, lots of table space for volunteers — and freezer space, so Friday-night dinner leftovers can get turned into lunches the following week, she said. In addition to the Friday night meal service, the Lord’s Gym — and its food-service operation, called Angels of God — offers a soup kitchen four days per week as well as an ongoing food pantry.

“We run a pretty big operation,” said organizer Gary Schneider. Despite all the donations, organizers said, at last count the Lord’s Gym’s annual expenses rose by approximately $15,000, which they’re trying to raise now. Adams, whose dedication to volunteerism despite macular degeneration was profiled in The Columbian in September 2010, still seems to see reasonably well and said she’s “hanging in there.”

“I just feel blessed to be part of this,” she said.

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; http://www.twitter.com/col_nonprofits;scott.hewitt@columbian.com.