As she walked in the dining hall, Delores Ulsh — wearing a red fedora, orange wool scarf, pink T-shirt and a gold snowflake pendant — wasted little time chatting up a couple of old friends, her smile as bright as the late afternoon sun.
“It’s really a great thing for the older people,” Leslie “Bud” Ulsh, Delores’ husband, said of the weekly gathering in the building that housed the Lakebay school he attended in 1939. “Some people can’t get out and have no place to go.”
Just about every Sunday for nearly a decade, volunteers from three churches have served free meals at the Key Peninsula Community Services dining hall in Lakebay. So far they’ve given out about 25,000 meals.
“It’s a big social club,” Bud Ulsh said.
The Sunday afternoon feed is more than just a plate of hot food. It is a way for neighbors — young and old, families and individuals — in this rural corner of Pierce County to visit with each other.
“I know many of these people,” said Debbie Ehrhardt, a Wellspring Fellowship congregant, volunteer and Evergreen Elementary School cafeteria worker. “A couple of them … I have served their grandchildren (in school).
“I love being able to serve people. It’s wonderful.”
The free meals program was started more than 10 years ago by the nonprofit group Interdenominational Missions Pact (IMPACT), to help fill the need of feeding low-income seniors on the Key Peninsula.
The group dissolved a few years later and the meals program was orphaned.
“But I kind of wanted to keep the feed going,” said Oliver Coldeen, chef at The Heritage Restaurant in The Inn at Gig Harbor for the past 16 years.
“It’s because of him that this program is still alive,” Ehrhardt said.
Coldeen persuaded three area churches — Harbor Christian Center of Gig Harbor, Wellspring Fellowship and the Longbranch Community Church on the Key Peninsula — to sponsor the meals program.
“This is a gift, an answer to a prayer,” said Kaye Drescher, a volunteer and congregant of Harbor Christian Center. “Because we just love to do this.”
John Day, pastor of the Longbranch church, said he loves the idea that people can “just come and be welcomed and be well fed.”
A PASSION FOR COOKING
Coldeen studied theater at Green River Community College and could easily have been cast as Tevye in a “Fiddler on the Roof” production.
But the economics of marriage and starting a family dimmed the affable 56-year-old chef’s dream of the big stage.
Instead, he learned how to make barbecue from the colorful characters who operated the Rib Ticklers restaurant in Gig Harbor in the 1990s.
He since has put his kitchen skills to use in the community he has lived in for almost three decades — organizing and cooking for the meals program.
Coldeen grew up on Vashon Island, learning the value of faith and charity early in his life. In high school, the way he tells the story, he was good at two things: acting and cooking.
“That got me through high school,” he said.
Coldeen worked at “a fish and chips place” by the ferry dock on Vashon, where he “discovered I had a bit of talent” in the kitchen.
Pursuing this passion, he worked for restaurants and in 1994 opened his own place, Oliver’s Smokehouse Grill at Key Center, with his wife Julie.
‘ONLY WAY I CAN GIVE BACK’
“I don’t have a lot of money,” Coldeen said. “It’s certainly the only way I can give back.”
Ehrhardt calls him “a wonderful man” because of his commitment to the Sunday feed.
“We don’t miss many Sundays,” except for Mother’s Day and Easter Sunday, Coldeen said.
The churches that sponsor the meals reimburse Coldeen for the food. Then volunteers from each of the three churches show up and help cook, serve and clean up.
“It’s neat watching people coming in to help as much as it is watching people coming in to eat,” Coldeen said. “People get a lot out of that.”
He said the program is definitely about community.
“If you live out here (you know) it’s a very small community,” Ehrhardt said. “I mean it’s big but it’s all very connected.”
To attend the Sunday feed, people “do not have to sign up for anything or be part of anything,” Coldeen said. Anyone can come.
After all these years, he still gets excited preparing the meals.
“I figured God gave me the talent and I better use it,” Coldeen said with a chuckle. “Because one day (God) is going to ask me, ‘What’d you do with (your talent)?’
“So I want to be ready with an answer.”