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By James Hufnagel

Recently I sat down to a hearty lunch consisting of a burger, macaroni salad, potato chips, melon and lemonade with over a hundred other good folks.

It wasn't a family reunion, political fundraiser or picnic in the park. We were breaking bread at the soup kitchen of Community Missions, located across the street from the Reporter offices on Buffalo Avenue. There were equal proportions of young and old, male and female, black and white seated at the long tables, some socializing, others eating alone.

"Many of the people you see here this afternoon, this is the only meal they will have today," my host Don Luce, director of public relations, told me. "Everyone is welcome and there's never a charge. No questions asked. We assume that if you're here, it's because you're hungry and you need a meal."

Listening to him, I started to become conscious of each bite I took of the burger, each mouthful of salad, every potato chip as it went into my mouth, sensing a vague awareness of what this simple act that most of us take for granted would feel like if I hadn't eaten since yesterday and wouldn't have much to eat until this time tomorrow.

I was interested in the line of servers behind the counter, at least six or seven of them, dressed in white and serving up plates of food with smiles and cheerful small talk.

"They're unpaid volunteers," Penny Addoms, who joined us for lunch, told me. "Some are former clients who wanted to give something back. We had one person do their community service here, and he kept coming back for years afterwards. But most volunteer just because they want to help people."

Penny is a beautiful person herself, performing many thousands of volunteer hours over the years for local charities like Community Missions. When Penny smiles at you, it's like the sun coming out from behind the clouds. A couple of tables away, I noticed an older gentleman with "Vietnam Vet" on his ball cap.

"We have some vets who come here regularly. Some are suffering long-term trauma from war, but more recently Iraq and Afghanistan vets who have had a tough time finding work because of the recession," said Luce.

Luce is a robust man a little over 70 years old, and he's spent much of his life overseas administering food programs in developing countries. He also holds a master's degree from Cornell and has taught at several colleges and universities. One of his many duties at Community Missions is to get up very early in the morning and make the rounds of supermarkets like Tops and Wegman's, and farmers' markets like Goodman's, to pick up gift donations of fruits, vegetables, canned beans and tuna, juices and baked goods for the pantry.

Food also comes in from the community. A gardener's abundance of zucchini, the unsold surplus of a church bake sale, extra food from a wedding reception, retirement dinner or graduation party -- all are frequently dropped off right at the 1570 Buffalo Ave. front office by thoughtful and caring people.

Lunch was over, and Don and Penny took me upstairs, where used clothing is made available daily until 2 p.m. Dozens of clients were methodically going through the plastic bins of donated clothing set out in rows across the parking lot. Most looked like they were wearing clothes they had, in all probability, previously obtained here in the same manner. One shirtless young boy, who couldn't have been much older than 8 or 9, ran up to his younger brother holding a blue t-shirt in front of him, shouting, "Look, Ricky, look! This one's gonna fit me! It's gonna fit me!"

Now if you think I'm trying to tug at your heart strings, that's true, because by this time there's a big lump in my throat. It was from a combination of witnessing up close the level of need that was all around and being in the presence of Don and Penny and the Community Missions staff, people whose compassion, patience and hard work seemed to know no bounds.

Like a lot of Americans, I believe in "personal responsibility" and "self-sufficiency," but the reality is that the brunt of the present economy falls hardest on the homeless veteran, the mentally or physically disabled, the young family whose bread-winner recently lost a job, and the hungry children who aren't yet old enough to comprehend that the adults in their life have let them down.

We walked back upstairs to the front waiting area and I asked, "What if it's winter and someone just wants to hang out here to stay warm?"

"As long as they're orderly, they can be here as long as they need," said Luce.

You can help by dropping off donations of food, clothing, items like toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, toilet paper, basically any life necessity, at the front office at any time. In addition, your financial contribution in the form of a check sent directly to Community Missions or care of this newspaper is leveraged by matching funds provided by generous individuals, no less than quadrupling the impact of your gift.

Community Missions, serving the Niagara Falls community since 1925, provides 85,000 meals, temporary shelter for over 400 homeless, life assistance to 1,000 mentally ill individuals, and helps hundreds of disadvantaged kids get a better start in life every year.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Oct. 4, 2011