By Elizabeth Perry
Welcome to the Table, the organization started by Marlene Banks in 2018 to help feed people who are hungry, has begun serving weekly, in-person meals again at the McKees Rocks VFW at 1242 Chartiers Ave.
The organization had its second grand opening event on Oct. 3, as meals are now being served on Tuesdays at 6 p.m.
Banks said all people are encouraged to come. Banks founded the charity because patrons don’t have a place where people can share a meal.
“We have food banks and that’s great, but it’s more meaningful to sit down and relax and eat. We’re open to everyone,” Banks said.
Banks said the Commander of the VFW had been “just wonderful,” in offering the space to host the meal.
During the pandemic, Banks stopped providing sit-down, community meals but still provided help at a tense time. In 2020, Banks and her group of volunteers provided 60 breakfast bags each week to food banks in Stowe Township and McKees Rocks. They would also provide a Grab & Go Wednesday meal. In 2022, that Grab & Go meal moved to the Sto-Rox High School cafeteria.
Banks had a strong connection to Sto-Rox, as she had worked for the district for almost 30 years and retired in 2015.
“I was the community liaison for Sto-Rox School District bringing different programs with the school. I loved it but it was time to go,” Banks said.
The Banks family and community members volunteer to cook and serve, with additional donations and financial support coming from businesses, nonprofits and residents in the Sto-Rox community like McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation. The nonprofit group makes monthly donations to the program while its board members Adrienne Roberts and Anthony Skender volunteer to serve food or wash dishes at mealtime.
Banks’ son, Edward Pierce, is a co-founder of the organization and five of her children help cook and donate food. Two of Banks’ grandsons have volunteered to cook with her since they were very young.
“My grandson is 16 and my other is 21, they helped serve, bring bags in and clean. It truly was a family project, but it’s family and friends,” Banks said.
Banks said through the six years she’s been operating she’s had some “awesome people” who have been with them throughout that time.
“We’re funded by people who believe what we believe; that it’s great to help someone, to serve someone, to make sure there’s a meal with no questions asked, family style,” Banks said.
Tri-State Furniture Company has helped with donations for the organization and with volunteers, too. Designer Holly MacDonald is on the board of Welcome to the Table, and said anything “Miss Marlene” needs, she tries to pitch in and provide. MacDonald helped set up the website, helped the organization get non-profit status and hoped to spread the word to more people in order to increase visibility for the charity.
“For years I was a single mom. For years I struggled to make ends meet. When I was younger this is definitely something I wish that I had because it’s not like a food bank,” MacDonald said.
Unlike a food bank, MacDonald said there were no applications or income requirements to fulfill. If a week came up when someone had to choose between getting their prescription medication filled or pay for food, Welcome to the Table was there for them. It filled in the gaps for people who may need help every once in a while.
Magistrate Bruce Boni is also a supporter of the organization and board member. Banks said he has agreed to sponsor an entire meal of prepared fried chicken and mac-n-cheese from Giant Eagle Marketplace to give her family a break from cooking one night.
“All I did was donate – she does the work,” Boni said.
Boni said he wants to be involved in the project for as long as Banks and her family are able to keep it going, and as long as “there’s a need.”
“She’s clearly dedicated to the community and the people in it so I want to support her in all she does,” Boni said.
Banks, who has been married for 43 years, describes herself as a mom, grandma, great-grandma and “a person that loves their community.”
“I think that her work speaks for itself,” Boni said.