Marlene Alford grew up eating a hot breakfast every morning and coming home from school to cookies fresh out of the oven.

She met a stark contrast to her upbringing when she started volunteering at the Women’s and Children’s Free Restaurant in 1998. “To see a whole different side of life — moms who would take home salad in a baggie so that they would have something later — was kind of a real shock to me,” she says.

Alford, who has been the executive director of the restaurant for 10 years, became part of the organization when they needed a chef to fill in. At the time, she was working for a chef and was also about to open her own catering business, but set it back a while to help out. She came down and cooked for two weeks and never left.

“Serving $75-a-plate corporate dinners was not as rewarding as serving a wonderful home-cooked meal to a family,” Alford says. “Good food should be shared.”

The Women’s and Children’s Free Restaurant serves lunch once a week and dinner twice a week to women and children in need. The restaurant has been operating from the basement of Christ Our Hope Bible Church for 25 years.

It’s very much like going out to eat, Alford says. It’s not come in, go through the line, get food and go. There are servers for every table and the dining room is arranged specifically to cultivate conversation. 

“The root of our mission is making sure that every plate of food that is served is healthy, is delicious and served with dignity,” she says.

Alford always cooked her own meals from scratch, so she runs the restaurant the same way. The kitchen works with whole foods, makes a majority of the meals from scratch, and serves two fresh veggies with every meal. All soups are homemade and entrées are presented restaurant-style. There’s milk and juice to drink — pure juice, not artificial. And coffee is set out just to get people to stick around. 

“The ladies and kids we serve probably need nutrition more than most,” she says. “Any time we can help a mother learn to choose healthy choices, it just benefits their family.”

The organization’s relationships allow them to focus on nutrition. The Women’s and Children’s Free Restaurant partners with a local church’s community garden, getting fresh produce throughout the week. The restaurant also delivers meals for other organizations to serve, such as Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery and Hope House. 

A very small percentage of the restaurant’s guests are actually homeless, Alford says. It’s a lot of seniors and working moms who just need some support. When they come in, no questions are asked of them and they don’t need to prove their need. They just dine.

Alford says it’s a challenge keeping up with the need in the community because they’re a small organization with a limited staff. That is one reason the restaurant will move to a larger location within the next year — to increase their impact. They already have a fundraising campaign underway to help purchase a permanent location in a low-income area. 

Alford sees the needs they currently meet and her biggest joy, she says, is walking into the dining room and seeing families eating beautiful meals. 

She felt the impact of her work one particular night a few years ago when a young mom with three children came to dinner. With no family in town, the woman watched her kids around the clock and looked worn out, Alford says. 

“When she came and sat down, she said, ‘Don’t ever think we’re not grateful for what you do. We may not always say thank you, but when we have a bad day it’s probably the kind of day the volunteers here could never understand,’” she says.

“We’re kind of privileged in a way because what we do, day in and day out, makes a difference in a family’s life,” she says. “I think it’s sometimes rare that people can work at a job that they have so much passion for, and it makes a difference.”

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