Churchgoer leads effort in making more than 4,400 hot meals for tornado victims

Hometown Hero — Lavonne Watkins

T-R PHOTO BY EMILY BLOBAUM - Lavonne Watkins poses for a portrait inside First Presbyterian Church. Since the tornado, Watkins has helped serve 4,446 meals to residents.

Editor’s note: The Times-Republican Salute to Hometown Heroes award was presented to five recipients on the anniversary of the tornado. The nominating process was open to the public and a committee of local volunteers selected the awardees.

When unforeseen tragedy strikes, sometimes all you can depend upon is the kindness of strangers. Following the July 19, 2018 tornado, members of First Presbyterian Church answered the Biblical call to comfort the afflicted.

During a mission meeting held that Saturday — two days after the tornado — congregants discussed ways in which they as a faith community could help the most people impacted by the tornado. They decided to provide a hot, free dinner for as long as was necessary.

“They said ‘that would be really good but who would take care of it’ and I raised my hand,” Lavonne Watkins said with a laugh. “Because that’s what I do. It’s one of the gifts God has blessed me with — to be able to organize and plan and get meals carried out for large groups. Before I left church on Sunday morning, the committee announced the decision. I was swamped with people handing me money and checks.”

Sunday night, the church served its first meal for tornado-impacted folks.

T-R PHOTO BY EMILY BLOBAUM - Lavonne Watkins poses for a portrait inside First Presbyterian Church. Since the tornado, Watkins has helped serve 4,446 meals to residents.

“The first night, we had no idea how many we were going to have,” Watkins said. “So I had five ladies that were going to make a large casserole, figuring it would feed 100 people, but we ended up having 185 plus come. By 6:15 p.m., we were out of casseroles, but had spaghetti and sauce available, making the batches as fast as we could. They were running ragged by the end of the night.”

These efforts went on through Aug. 11. A total of 4,466 meals were provided. Watkins clocked in 10-15-hour days.

Watkins has put in more than 40 years of volunteerism to her church and community. She taught Girl Scouts how to cook meals for a crowd, spent 35-plus years co-chairing her church’s meal committee for funerals and worked for seven years as a “lunch lady” at Hoglan Elementary School, serving breakfast and lunch to hungry students.

Raised a Methodist, she and her husband Larry found their “church home” at First Presbyterian in the early 1970s. In that time, Watkins has taught Sunday School and Vacation Bible School (VBS), led craft activities and been active in the church’s women’s club.

“The day of the tornado I was in Des Moines cleaning out my sister-in-law’s house (to prepare for a move), and I just couldn’t wait to get back to Marshalltown to help,” she said.

T-R PHOTO BY EMILY BLOBAUM - Lavonne Watkins poses for a portrait inside First Presbyterian Church. Since the tornado, Watkins has helped serve 4,446 meals to residents.

Watkins said those who attended the mission meeting were adamant about preparing a hot meal and side dishes for those in need.

“We found out most of the people (impacted by the tornado) had no electricity, and had no way of heating anything and they were getting cold sandwiches (from other entities), so we decided right off the bat we weren’t going to serve sandwiches unless we had to,” she said.

The second night of the free meals, they served 325 people.

Watkins would arrive at the church, 101 S. Center St., each day around 10 a.m. to begin prepping for the evening meal. Volunteers would funnel in around 1 p.m. to chop, peel, stir and bake. She said about 80 members of her church were involved in the efforts, plus an equal number from outside the congregation. Her husband served as a “bouncer” to greet people bringing in donations, and to control the flow of diners.

Being creative and adaptable were essential traits she utilized in the three-week long endeavor.

T-R PHOTO BY EMILY BLOBAUM - Lavonne Watkins poses for a portrait inside First Presbyterian Church. Since the tornado, Watkins has helped serve 4,446 meals to residents.

If chicken was served for one meal, chicken and noodles or chicken and biscuits would be on the menu the next evening. If a large donation of hamburger came in last minute, for example, then they’d have to switch gears and prepare meatloaf.

“I would plan a meal and then I’d get a phone call from someone with donations, so we’d scratch the planned menu. We had to be flexible. We had food coming in from so many places,” she said.

Watkins not only planned the menus, she grocery shopped for ingredients and organized the volunteers, keeping track of names and phone numbers in a notebook she carried with her.

The church settled on mid-August to end the nightly free meals when attendance began to decline.

“We were also seeing people come in that hadn’t been impacted by the tornado, and we didn’t want to take the place of the House of Compassion or the Emergency Food Box,” she said.

The generosity of donors helped the church finance this effort.

“By the end, our financial secretary figured out the money that was spent on food and the figuring of our difference on past usage, we had broken even with what came in and out, so it wasn’t a hardship on the church,” she said. “Had it been, we would have put out a plea and it would have come in, but I don’t think we ever thought of the cost.”

Congregant Gerald Schaudt marvels at Watkins’ work ethic.

“She did all this with a smile on her face and never complained about the large amount of time she spent at the church each day,” he said. “How many people left our church with a full stomach and a much better feeling about themselves? Mostly because of Lavonne Watkins.”

While she spends her winters in Florida, she says she’s “never really on vacation.” She makes quilts and other items for Habitat for Humanity.

“I consider myself a professional volunteer. I don’t get paid money, but I get paid in many other ways,” Watkins said.