(photo courtesy of André House)

André House of Arizona volunteers number the plates they dish up each night for guests who would otherwise go hungry.

The tally reaches at least 500 and sometimes as high as 700. They start over again at one the next night, but somewhere deep in office files lies a running total — and it’s about to reach 5 million. Staff calculations say it will occur on the Lord’s Day, Oct. 29.

Sunday is historic “Chili Night.” Casey Whitehead, a core team member, will head up efforts. A group of at least 10 former Marines and the “Faith Seekers” from St. Patrick in Scottsdale will be among the volunteers.

Thirty-three years after its founding by two Holy Cross Catholic priests, Andre House is still following Christ’s call to serve the least among them by providing an evening meal to people experiencing poverty and homelessness in Central Phoenix. In doing so André House has brought together individuals, groups and agencies from all sectors of the Valley to serve the community.

“The real testimony is to the consistency of service by our volunteers,” said Fr. Tom Doyle, CSC. He is well into his third year as director of André House.

Fr. Tom Doyle, CSC, offers André House’s deepest thanks to the countless people to carry the flame of life and light to his hungry guests who often experience so much darkness.

“Were it not for the 30 volunteers that show up on a summer Sunday, when it is 120 degrees and every day in-between, the miracle of each evening would not be possible,” the Holy Cross priest said. “Our volunteers arrive at 3 p.m. and begin chopping the fruits and vegetables, serve the meal, and stay until 7:30 helping to clean the facility. The combination of their strength and humility is inspiring.”

Fr. Doyle also described their humility to interact with dinner guests. It’s something that speaks to a founding principle of André House: each human life deserves dignity.

“People living on the street are generally not physically starving, but they are starved of human contact. Our volunteers smile, look the guests in the eye, and get to know our guests by name,” Fr. Doyle said.

Irma Leyendecker, a one-time parishioner at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Glendale, began volunteering with André House as a seventh-grader in the ’80s. Operations were out of a little red house on Polk Street back then.

“Serving food on the street to total strangers seems like it would be shocking to a child, but to me it did not seem strange. It just felt like it was the right thing to do — felt like it was our duty, ‘Who would feed these people if we didn’t?'” Leyendecker shared via an André House Facebook post. “The people we served from folding tables on the street did not seem like strangers. We knew they were our brothers and sisters; we were serving family.”

The guests often offered a “thank you” and “gave us a grateful smile.

I learned through my work at André House that volunteering can be truly selfish and addicting as I continued to go back not just to serve but to feel the joy and love I felt each time I gave of myself for the sake of others,” Leyendecker wrote.

Catholic Sun file photo

Tami Strege volunteers every Holy Thursday — at least. There, she has the opportunity to genuinely wash the feet of someone just as Jesus did at the Last Supper. Her reflection leading up to André House’s five millionth meal recalled her friend, “Saul,” who renewed her own faith. He declined Strege’s offer at first to have his feet washed because he said he didn’t believe in God.

“I said that that was okay, because God still believes in him,” Strege wrote. That was evident during the conversation that followed when Strege learned Saul recently moved off the street and was looking for a job. She told him that her school district was always looking for a custodian.

“Yeah, but unless you know somebody, you never get in,” Saul replied. That’s when she told him she was a principal and offered to give HR a heads up. It became the first, but not the last time Saul stood up and shouted the name of Jesus. Before the night’s end, he said, “Maybe it’s time for me to believe in God again.”

5 million meals

Staff would like to give away socks to guests as part of its 5 millionth meal celebration. Women’s socks are especially needed. Details.

A co-founder reflects on divine hug

Reflections from other volunteers

Donate blankets for those chilly fall mornings

Volunteer Celebration Concert (invitation only) Oct. 30 featuring John Michael Talbot

It’s those cordial relationships along with community involvement and partnerships that paved the path to five million meals. Over the 33 years, Saint Mary’s Food Bank has provided more than 5 million pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Dedicated Volunteers have logged over 967,000 hours preparing produce for pots and plates. In more recent years, agencies on the neighboring Human Services Campus work closely to provide shelter, jobs, advocacy and mental health care to the guests with the police and fire department invaluable partners in keeping guests and volunteers safe.

As long as there is a need, André House staff and volunteers are honored to serve the next and every meal.