Free community meals program says goodbye to a leader 

  • Volunteers prepare desserts for Cliff Fournier's retirement celebration on Thursday, Dec. 27, held during the free community meal. —SARAH ROBERTSON

  • Cliff Fournier, 87, wears a hat gifted to him at his retirement party Thursday night. Fournier is retiring from his role as the lead organizer of the free community meals at Bethany Evangelical Lutheran Church, but will continue to volunteer his time for the organization. —SARAH ROBERTSON

  • Cliff Fournier gifts the incoming leader of the free community meals, Laurie MacDonald, with an apron from Ukraine during his retirement party on Dec. 27 at Bethany Lutheran Church. —SARAH ROBERTSON

  • Laurie MacDonald will take over as the lead organizer of the free weekly meals at Bethany Lutheran Church with help from the Franklin County Community Meals Program. —SARAH ROBERTSON

Published: 1/1/2019 12:17:49 PM

By SARAH ROBERTSON

ORANGE-- Cliff Fournier’s retirement as a leader of the twice-weekly community meals at Bethany Evangelical Lutheran Church marks the end of an era as the congregation plans to close its doors and food insecurity in the region remains high. 

A retirement party for Fournier was held at the Cheney Street church on Thursday night where he served his final meal with the Franklin County Community Meals Program (FCCMP) to a gathering of grateful community members, volunteers and friends. 

“Cliff has been the heart and soul of the community that everyone can come to,” said FCCMP executive director Andrea Leibson. “It’s been a privilege to work with him. He finds food, he feeds people regularly and he does it with a tremendous amount of energy.”

Fournier organized and served the twice-weekly community meal at Bethany Lutheran Church for more than 10 years. He worked several hours per week collecting food from local stores, Walmart, Hannaford’s and anyone else with a meal to spare to deliver to local food pantries.

“I work all day Sunday,” Fournier said. “I sleep well at night.”

Now 87 years old, Fournier grew up in Orange and worked for 32 years as a special education teacher at Erving Elementary School, sitting on multiple local school boards and earning the Recorder’s Citizen of the Year distinction in 2015. By building connections with other individuals, community organizations and businesses, Cliff built a network of people who know to call him when they have excess food that would otherwise go to waste.

“We’re an economically depressed area,” said Dennis Hallett, a community meal volunteer of over 24 years, “There’s a lot of people who have to choose between putting groceries on the table, paying rent or turning the heat on.”

Citing a decline in attendance, Bethany Lutheran Church will close on Feb. 1 and gift the building to Mission Covenant Church across the block. Church leaders intend to keep the meal program going in partnership with the FCCMP, but will suspend Monday evening meals in January for a variety of reasons having to do with scheduling and upcoming repairs to the building, according to Leibson. However, Thursday evening’s meals will continue at Bethany Lutheran Church at 5:30.

According to Leibson, Bethany Lutheran’s closing and Fournier’s retirement come midst a time of rising food insecurity in the community. About 1,900 people used the Orange Food Pantry in 2016, then in 2017 that number increased by over a third to 2,700 people.

“We know the need is constant,” Leibson said. “It hasn’t gone down, but it went up two years ago, dramatically.”

The increase coincided with the closing of the 175-year-old Rodney Hunt Company in Orange, although Leibson is unsure exactly what caused the dramatic spike. The FCCMP plans to keep serving as much food as is necessary to meet the community’s need.

“We want to put ourselves out of business,” said Marian Boyd, president of the FCCMP Board of Directors. “We hope one day the need won’t be there, but it’s going the other way.”

The Franklin County Community Meals Program began in Greenfield in the mid-1980s, and sources food from donors, food banks and grant funding, according to Leibson. Churches are ideal locations to host the free meals because they usually have large large kitchens, social halls and seating.

Cliff first got involved with the soup kitchen as a way to give his frequent foster children and foreign exchange students a means of getting involved with the community. For decades he opened his home to at least 215 foster children and 140 foreign exchange students, he said, two of which returned to volunteer at Thursday night’s community meal. 

“I just kept coming back and next thing I knew I was in charge,” Fournier said. 

When the Belchertown State School for the Feeble-Minded closed in 1992, he took in about 20 boys and helped them find permanent homes, too.

“He’s really been a gem to the community,” said Kevin Ranahan, an Orange resident attending Thursday’s celebration.

Hampshire College student and Orange native Naomi Cope started volunteering at the Bethany Lutheran community meal doing service for their Bat Mitzvah, then kept coming back. Cope calls Cliff everyone’s “universal grandparent.”

“Cliff has watched me grow up, basically. It really makes coming back and volunteering here feel like family,” Cope said. “He provided me with the environment where I can feel like it’s home here.”

Wearing sweatpants and slip-on shoes as he served the evening’s meal, Fournier is a humble man who avoids the spotlight, Cope said. After a short thank-you speech he asked the room whether they had anything else to say. Shouts of ‘We love you Cliff!’ and ‘You’re the best!’ resonated from the room.

“He made himself available to people,” said Rosanne Hoyt, an Orange resident who has attended the community meals for years. “If he knew you needed something he’d get it to you.”

Laurie MacDonald, an Orange resident since 1994 and mastermind behind the town’s plastic bag recycling center, will take over as the coordinator for the community meals program at Bethany Lutheran Church. A mother to eight and former travelling musician, MacDonald says that she knows how to stretch a dollar.

“We’re very thrifty,” MacDonald said. “I have the creative side built into me. I create food, I create music.”

A member of the Erving Evangelical Congregational Church, MacDonald credits her faith and love of God as her motivation to do good.  “I am a vessel of His love,” she said.

“I know Laurie, and I know we’re in good hands,” Hoyt said. 

Fournier will continue volunteering with the community meals program helping reclaim unused food, he is just taking a step back from the leadership role. 

“Cliff has been a one-man band for years, and now we’re replacing him,” Leibson said. 

The FCCMP relies on partnering organizations to take turns putting on the meal, providing volunteers and donations. In Greenfield over 40 organizations take turns donating their time and resources, but in Orange just 10 provide the regular meals; The Farm School, Lions Club and St. Mary’s Church among them. 

“We’d love to get more groups to help us,” Boyd said. 

Leibson said that the program asks nothing of the attendees, not even their names, and anyone is welcome to attend the free meals. 

“Some come because they don’t have enough money, or trying to stretch the money they do have,” Leibson said. “There should be no stigma attached, we are always welcoming people to come to us and share the meals.”

Anyone in need of food is encouraged to attend FCCMP’s other free meals in Turner’s Falls Monday nights at Our Lady of Peace Church, and in Greenfield on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at Second Congregational Church on Court Square.

“There is food out there, we’ve just got to get it to the right people at the right time,” Leibson said. 

Sarah Robertson can be reached at srobertson@atholdailynews.com.


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