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Feeding the multitude for two decades

Meg Kearns smiles during an appreciation luncheon. (Photo by Naomi Yaeger)1 / 7
Kearns, second from the left, with Nathan Holst, Peace Church youth and children's minister, and co-workers Mary Schmitz, development director, and Courtney Cochran, congregational outreach and volunteer coordinator. (Photo by Naomi Yaeger)2 / 7
David Thorton, a member of the CHUM food shelf advisory committee, helps wash dishes after the luncheon (Photo by Naomi Yaeger)3 / 7
CHUM executive director and CHUM board member Jean Esler visit after the luncheon. (Photo by Naomi Yaeger)4 / 7
Al Baumgarten-Leveille, a neighbor of Kearns, and John Herbertz, who described himself as "a friend from St. Benedict's Church," stopped the luncheon to give Kearns balloon and wish her well. Both men are social workers at Lake Superior Community Health Center which is near the church were they luncheon was held. (Photo by Naomi Yaeger)5 / 7
Greg Tiburzi plays guitar during the luncheon. (Photo by Naomi Yaeger)6 / 7
Some members of the food shelf advisory committee present Kearns with a quilt made by Holy Cross Lutheran Church. Holding the quilt are Kerry Wedin and Jean Esler. David Thorton stands in back. At the podium is CHUM executive director Lee Stuart. (Photo by Naomi Yaeger)7 / 7

After 23 years of employment with CHUM, Meg Kearns, the agency's food shelf coordinator and former CHUM Church coordinator, is retiring.

More than 60 people gathered in the basement of Our Savior's Lutheran Church on Grand Avenue on May 23 for a volunteer appreciation luncheon which doubled as a retirement party for Kearns.

CHUM is an agency which provides social safety net programs like emergency food, shelter and advocacy to low-income people. It is supported by area faith groups.

Kearns started with CHUM in 1993. As a part-time employee, she coordinated CHUM Church, a worship service for people with developmental disabilities. In 1997 she added another title to her role with CHUM when she became the food shelf coordinator. She also oversaw the distribution of clothing, school backpacks and household supplies.

In anticipation of retirement, she relinquished her role as CHUM church coordinator in December 2015. Susan Anderson, a member of Gloria Dei Church, took on the role.

"I'm going to miss the people," Kearns told the Budgeteer, referring to both the volunteers and the people she served. Her last day will be June 30.

The Sauk Center native was raised in a Catholic family. "They certainly modeled lives that would be helpful and generous in thinking about other people," she said of her parents.

"She is quietly magnanimous," said Mary Schmitz, CHUM development director. "I've known her all my life." Both Schmitz and Kearns, coincidentally, hail from Sauk Center. During their school years, Kearns was friends with Schmitz's sister.

"I grew up a block and 50 years apart from Sinclair Lewis," Kearns said.

She attended St. Catherine's College, graduating with a degree in economics and math in 1972. She worked as a computer programmer for Cargill in the Twin Cities. During her free time, she became involved in recreational programs for the developmentally disabled.

She moved to Duluth with her husband in 1973 and worked for Lutheran Social Services. That's how David Thorton, a retired teacher, came to know her.

"She's kind, easy going and people-centered," Thorton said. As a member of Our Savior's Lutheran Church, he met Kearns in the late 1970s when his church and LSS worked to resettle families from Southeast Asia to Duluth.

He now serves on the advisory committee for the food shelf.

One poignant memory Kearns has of CHUM church involves a developmentally disabled woman who had a terminal illness. CHUM church is tailored to the unique needs of those with developmental disabilities and meets twice a month at Peace United Church of Christ in Duluth. It also has a visitation program.

Kearns had met the woman previously during a home visit.

"A woman contacted me and said, 'My sister is dying.' The family was not involved in a church, but thought it would be nice if the person officiating at the woman's funeral was a church person," Kearns said.

Kearns made arrangement for Rev. David Carlson of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church to visit the dying woman. During the process the woman decided to be baptized.

Carlson also officiated at the woman's funeral. Kearns said it is nice when the officiant of the funeral has actually met the deceased.

Though her college major of economics and math prepared her to be bean counter, working with people is what she says she really loved, which led her to wonder why she hadn't majored in special education. Yet by counting the beans for the food shelf, she made sure many people were served and kept food on the shelves for CHUM.

"Certainly there have been times when our shelves have been pretty bare," Kearns said.

Food shelf clients are provided enough food for five days. When there was not enough food on the shelves, cash was used to purchase items at a cheaper rate from special food distribution programs. Some months the food shelf limped along. Peanut butter ranged from 6 cents per pound to $1.25 per pound. Corporate donations of items like cereal varied from month to month.

"We've always managed to come out in the black," Kearns said.

Naomi Yaeger

Naomi Yaeger is a freelance writer and the former editor of the Budgeteer. See her blog at