Out and About at WRAL.com

— On certain Sundays each month, a group of women seeking fellowship, a way to give back to the community and a creative outlet through cooking meets at the Lemon Springs Ruritan Club to prepare hot meals for people in need. In about three-and-ahalf hours, the group, which represents diverse backgrounds, takes fresh, healthy ingredients, turns them into tasty, filling dinners and delivers them to residents in area shelters.

The endeavor, called Friendship Kitchen, is led by Chef Sarah Sligh whose mantra and mission is fellowship and food for the community. Since the beginning of this year, it has had the support of the Lemon Springs Ruritan Club which has provided regular use of its kitchen, purchased a freezer and two refrigerators and helped to stock the pantry with food staples. All the individuals in the cooking group have been welcomed into Club membership and all other Ruritan members are welcome and encouraged to participate in the cooking sessions. Lemon Springs is a small community within the City of Sanford in Lee County. The Lemon Springs Ruritan Club is the only Ruritan Club in the county.

“Sarah’s biggest goal is to help others,” says Bonnie Cupps, president of the Lemon Springs Ruritan Club. “She is always about what she can do to feed people. The entire goal of Ruritan Club is community outreach. It’s a good fit.”

“I am amazed to meet such a group of community-based minds – they want to give back,” says Sligh of the Club.

Core members of Friendship Kitchen include Sarah Sligh, Wendy Tomblin, Christine Wenrich and Eileen Murphy. Sligh and Tomblin are the only two actual chiefs. Sligh is a graduate of Central Carolina Community College’s culinary program and working chef at Angelina’s Kitchen in Pittsboro. Tomblin is the former baker and owner of a bakery shop in Pittsboro called The Country Bakeress. The Covid pandemic impacted both their careers and had a hand in bringing the group together. Sligh temporarily lost her position and Tomblin was forced to close her business and sell her home. Both women were determined to continue doing what they love to do. At the time they met Murphy at the Sanford Farmers Market, she had also lost her job due to Covid. Asked what the cooking group means to her, Wenrich recalled: “A long time ago, I was a single parent and I needed help. I know what it feels like and it makes me feel better when I can do this.”

Each member brings individual skills and talents to the table. Sligh calls Wenrich, a retired Navy veteran, seamstress and jack-of-all-trades, her “right arm in the kitchen who works like a Sous Chef doing prep work, packaging, delivery, pick-ups and shopping. Wendy (Tomblin) is our levity in the kitchen, our baker and has massive amounts of non-profit experience,” says Sligh. Tomblin now works within the hospice community. “Eileen (Murphy) is our music and laughter and does everything. She is a project manager for a medical supply company, a “give me a task” person.” Sligh has a ServeSafe certification that comes from the County Health Department.

“Sundays are about fellowship, conversation that is good,” says Sligh. “Getting together and cooking creates fellowship.”

 Lemon Springs Ruritan Club

Currently, Friendship Kitchen is providing meals for Outreach Mission, Inc. (OMI) of Sanford; Bread of Life Ministries of Sanford; Haven in Lee County, Inc.; and The Navigation Center. OMI operates shelters for men, women and children. Bread of Life Ministries is a cold-weather shelter and food pantry. Haven shelters residents coming out of domestic violence and sexual assault situations. The Navigation Center provides assistance through The Salvation Army of Lee County to homeless people and others needing to find services.

“If there is an organization that needs it, we would reach out,” says Cupps. “We’ve already talked about growing and getting more donations so we can provide more.” With each cooking session, the group provides 40 meals for Outreach Mission, alone.

Homelessness is a significant generator of the need for meals. On average, Outreach Mission has approximately 36 clients at any given time between both its shelters which served 386 people in 2021, according to Hamer Carter, president of Outreach Mission. Carter cites the shortage of affordable housing, rental income requirements, lack of jobs, low wages and individual and family problems all as contributors to homelessness. “We are full up, all the time,” says Carter.

“Even though we have food there for them to cook, a lot of times they don’t eat on a regular basis. Some can’t cook; others are not very good cooks. It’s easier to pick up a soup or can of beans.” says Carter. “Cooking is a life skill that we try to help clients with. The big benefit that the ladies give to us is giving us healthy meals. The customers are tickled to get the meals because they are always tasty and healthy.”

“It’s healthier cooking,” says Cupps. “We try to make sure that anything they provide is allergy sensitive.”

“Nothing makes you feel more vulnerable than your most basic human needs, especially when you are a parent and you’ve got children to feed,” says Tomblin. “This shouldn’t be something that people worry about. We all have lives and obligations but this is one thing we can do that actually makes a difference in someone’s life today and so we think if we can do this one thing, let’s do it.”

 Lemon Springs Ruritan Club

Friendship Kitchen relies on donations of food and other supplies from individuals, farmers, producers and organizations, including the Lemon Springs Ruritan Club. “In anticipation of the growing season, we have already talked with three farmers – White Hill Farms; Steve McNeil Farm; and another local farmer who has about 70 chickens – about donations for eggs, strawberries, fresh fruits and vegetables,” says Cupps. “It’s harder to get meat donated.” “Some donations come through as surpluses, such as flour,” says Sligh.

“The way we reciprocate is that we go out and get donations for the group to use in their preparations,” says Carter. “We have ties with Tyson and Mountaire. We can’t supply everything, but a few things to help them.” Bread of Life Ministries has also helped with donations including meat.

Friendship Kitchen found a home with the Lemon Springs Ruritan Club after Bonnie Cupps discovered an article with a photo of Sarah Sligh posted on Facebook. In the photo, Sligh was cooking meals for shelter customers out of the Camelback Brewing Company’s kitchen in Sanford for a short time. This was not, however, the first time she became acquainted with Sligh. Another cooking group, Robin Hood, which was started in the fall of 2020, for which Sligh was a founding member, had cooked for a period of time in the Lemon Springs Ruritan Club kitchen. Robin Hood, with a similar mission, operated in both Lee and Chatham Counties but in 2021, the leadership decided to serve only Chatham County and stopped utilizing the Club’s kitchen. Robin Hood members parted ways with Sligh opting to continue serving Lee County.

Cupps quickly saw the opportunity to help continue the work in Lee County and invited Sligh’s group, then nameless, to join the Lemon Springs Ruritan Club, use its kitchen and accept support. Hamer Carter of Outreach Mission is a Club member and has a key role in working with local area shelters.

The Lemon Springs Ruritan Club has a long history of community involvement. The Club partners with Outreach Mission to adopt children who are in shelters or have departed within the past six months for Christmas support. “We go shopping for gifts and what they need,” says Cupps.

Greenwood Elementary School is assisted as needed and the entire staff is fed once per year in recognition of their work. For the past 20 years, the Club has provided a high school senior with a college scholarship in the amount of $600. For a time, only nursing students were supported but now, all fields are eligible. Applications are available to both public and private schools. This year’s deadline is April 30.

A major fundraiser for the Lemon Springs Ruritan Club is an annual golf tournament. This year’s tournament will be held on Sept. 24 at the Quail Ridge Golf Course in Sanford. In July, the Club sells tickets for a fundraising raffle whereby the winner gets a cash prize. “Last year it was great,” says Cupps. “The winner donated the money back to the Club – really awesome.”

Use of the kitchen revolves around rentals for birthday parties, baby showers, wedding rehearsal dinners and the like, adding to the Club’s financial resources.

Historically, Ruritan is a rural club. “It was started by agricultural farmers – ours in 1951,” says Cupps. “Its involvement is with rural communities rather than cities.” Lemon Springs is in Zone Three of the Cape Fear District which has five zones. There are 20 clubs in the District.

Friendship Kitchen, together with the Lemon Springs Ruritan Club, stands ready to make a difference. “They’ve given us such an opportunity to do this,” says Sligh.

“My biggest feeling is that we are a small organization but we have to start somewhere,” says Cupps. “In this nation, the United States, nobody should be hungry but there are hungry people right in our backyard.”

Organizations or groups, in need of meals, as well as potential donors of food, supplies and other support are encouraged to reach out to Lemonspringsruritankitchen@gmail.com or by sending a message through the Lemon Springs Ruritan Facebook page.

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