By Emery Malachowski
On Veterans Day several years ago, members of the Sto-Rox High School football team visited hospitals to give away blankets, read poems and pay their respects to veterans. The team was deeply touched by their experiences there, and noted to their organizer, Marlene Banks, that the veterans had tears in their eyes.
“[I told them] they’re crying because they’re grateful,” said Banks, 73, of McKees Rocks. “I wanted to encourage the team to see in people what I see. Everyone, no matter their stage in life, deserves respect.”
Banks, Gazette 2.0’s Person of the Year for 2021, is a multi-faceted woman who organizes many different efforts in the Sto-Rox community. Not least of these is the “Welcome to the Table” project where Sto-Rox residents can receive free, hot meals with no questions asked. Between 60 and 100 people are served each week.
"[Marlene] Banks is an asset to our community,” said Cheryl McDermott, Stowe commissioner and local businesswoman, who was one of many who nominated Banks for the recognition. “She started Welcome to the Table…and should be recognized for her caring heart."
When she heard that she had been named the Gazette 2.0’s Person of the Year, Banks said she felt overwhelmed, grateful and humbled.
“I do what I love for the love of people,” said Banks. “I want to grow, and be a role model for my children and grandchildren.”
To Banks, her work with the Welcome to the Table project symbolizes friendship. She wants to make people feel valued, and believes that sharing a meal is more than just sustenance. “I put my whole self into that meal…,” she said. “Wars have been settled over a meal.”
Banks doesn’t want people who come to Welcome to the Table to feel obligated to justify why they are there. She wants everyone to know that you don’t need to be homeless to be hungry, and that people can drop by because they’re lonely, because money is tight at the end of the month, or because they’re working moms who deserve to relax instead of cooking a meal at the end of their shift. Banks says when she was raising her three children, she always wanted someone to do that for her. Banks and her husband of 41 years are now the proud grandparents of seven grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
Welcome to the Table runs “through the grace of God,” and through the donations of churches, nonprofits, local restaurants and the community according to Banks. She said she used to love holding fellowship at the table, often within the basement of a local church and would do everything she could to make sure everyone understood they were valued and that she wanted them to stay for a while.
“When she talks, people listen,” said Kimberly Rogers, executive assistant at Focus on Renewal. “She has that eternal grandmotherly quality, and I feel at peace when I’m with her.”
During the pandemic, Banks has had to pause her sit-down meals and operate through a “grab n’ go” and delivery system, which she runs out of the Sto-Rox High School and from the American Legion in Stowe.
In 2022, she plans to operate similarly for a while, but has intentions of becoming a nonprofit organization, and says she and her team are praying for a forever home so they no longer have to keep switching locations.
Before Welcome to the Table, Banks worked in the Sto-Rox School District for 28 years as a parent liaison. Still very much connected to the district, she serves the Sto-Rox high school football team hot meals on Wednesdays with encouraging words.
“Sometimes kids need more than to be shouted at,” said Banks. “We’re encouragers, we have to be if we want to raise strong men and women.”
She also, with the help of volunteers, creates 80 bags a week of sandwiches, juices, and granola bars for the Sto-Rox football team as well as the Cornell football team, where her grandson JaMarcus Pierce plays.
For the past 20 years, Banks has, according to son Edward Pierce, been involved in one program or another including the pre-pandemic initiative “Mary’s Blankets,” which provided packages of warm, soft blankets to veterans, seniors, Sojourner’s House and hospitals from Kennedy to Oakland to Aspinwall.
The idea for the program came to Banks in 2006 when she lost both her mother, Mary, and her eldest son, Vincent. Both felt loved and comforted by soft blankets, and so Banks chose to use blankets to show comfort and love to others. She wants people to feel that these blankets are a hug, both from her and from God’s arms, and to feel encouraged.
“People within our community have good hearts, but might feel afraid, lost, or like they don’t know what to do,” said Rogers, who believes Banks is a great example of “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”