In 1991, Waterloo Lions Club members Lynn Bersche and Don Schmitt learned there would not be a Meals on Wheels program for local residents on Thanksgiving.
They could not stomach this lack of food for those in need, so the men organized the first ever Share the Feast event.
Schmitt owned a local IGA, so he donated turkeys for other Lions Club members to prepare.
Bersche and his wife, Virginia, chaired the event, doing most of the planning and preparation.
Only 15 dinners were served during that inaugural event, but after 26 years it has grown to feed more than 300 people annually.
Those efforts spanning more than a quarter century were recently rewarded by Illinois, which gave the Waterloo Lions Club a Governor’s Hometown Award for the project.
“Just the good feeling of knowing it was recognized and appreciated on a state level is just monumental to me,” said Debbie Ruggeri, a longtime club member who helped lead the push to get this award. “It doesn’t even take a trophy or anything. Nothing can compare to knowing the founders of this event are going to get recognized for it.”
Other club members also expressed their appreciation of the award.
“It was very heartwarming that we won it,” Waterloo Lions Club President George Obernagel said. “I guess the judges felt that we do a great community event during the Thanksgiving time to serve homebound people and families. It’s just an event where we make people happy by giving them a meal for Thanksgiving.”
“It makes you feel good to get rewarded, but we don’t do it to get rewarded,” fellow Lion Ron Mueller added. “We just do it to help the community. The Lions’ motto is ‘We serve,’ and we do that with this event.”
Share the Feast takes place every Thanksgiving. The club prepares meals for those in need throughout the county, from people who cannot leave their home to lonely people who do not have anywhere else to go for Thanksgiving.
The meals may be eaten in the cafeteria of Ss. Peter & Paul Catholic School, picked up, or delivered.
“It’s free and it’s always been free for anybody who needs it, no matter what walk of life, no matter what need,” Ruggeri explained.
The Governor’s Hometown Award gives formal recognition to projects that improve a community’s quality of life. Several awards are given out, divided by category and population size of the municipality sponsoring the application.
The process for applying for the award, which Waterloo has previously won, began for Ruggeri in February.
She had been helping with the event for several years when she began learning about the history of the service.
She discovered how it started. She learned local businesses like JV’s Downtown Bar & Grill, Schnucks, Schneider’s Quality Meats and even SPPCS donate to make it possible. She found out volunteers from across the community come together to help this event run so smoothly.
“I was totally amazed,” Ruggeri said of learning about the history. “I just felt it was so worthy of recognition. I don’t take credit for any of it because I’ve only been a helper.”
So, Ruggeri got to work on the application, finishing it before the Aug. 1 deadline. The state soon informed Ruggeri that she and two other people were going to Springfield to present about Share the Feast to a group of four judges on Sept. 26.
“I really wasn’t surprised that we were called there because I think it’s about the most heartwarming thing an organization can do to feed the community – a warm Thanksgiving meal for free,” Ruggeri said. “It’s just so heartwarming community-wide.”
The judges are from the Serve Illinois Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service, which administers the Governor’s Hometown Awards program.
Ruggeri, Mueller and Dale Haudrich gave the presentation, explaining the history of Share the Feast and all the work that goes into making it happen.
Following the presentations, the judges score each applicant on a variety of categories.
“Dale and Ron were just as smooth as could be because they have done it for years,” Ruggeri recalled. “They told the story so well. It was wonderful for me to hear.”
That storytelling must have worked because about a week later, Ruggeri found out they had won the award in the Healthy Futures category.
“I think we should be proud as a club that we’ve continued it on for so many years, that we have members that are still involved,” Obernagel said of the significance of this honor. “It’s a tradition that’s being carried on by the Waterloo Lions and the volunteerism of community individuals.”
“It validates the club is doing what we’re supposed to be doing and that’s serving the community,” said Mueller, who chaired the event for 15 years with his wife Ruth Ann.
Waterloo will receive a sign proclaiming the award.
On Nov. 15, the Waterloo Lions Club will also find out if their work wins the top prize, the Governor’s Cup. Only one project wins that award.
Obernagel, Ruggeri and two others will attend a dinner where that winner is announced.
This year’s Share the Feast event will take place shortly thereafter on Nov. 22 from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Call Ruth Ann Mueller for deliveries at 939-6867.