For 11 years Stone Church has served up not only thousands of free, hot meals but a heaping of fellowship and dignity with its weekly Neighborhood Dinner.

“When I first came, people showed up just to have a meal,” said Barbara Graeff-Vinck, the program’s manager. But after a while, she said, the “guests” created their own community that has grown to include services and outreach beyond a simple dinner.

That sense of community caught the attention of Community Services League. Starting last year CSL began stewarding the Neighborhood Dinner as one of its designated feeding operations in the Kansas City metro area.

Community Service League’s President and CEO Doug Cowan attributes the success of the program to the work of the volunteers and the community the guests have created.

“The reason why more than on average 250 people come (each week) is it’s a place that feels like home,” he said. “It’s a place where they feel welcomed. It’s a place where they feel like they have ownership. It’s a place where people feel valued.”

With the backing of CSL, the Neighborhood Dinner will be able to offer up economy of scale in terms of being able to continue Stone Church’s program that began with just two people cooking in their home kitchen.

Church members started out with an idea in 2009 of serving up meals once a month in a sit-down, restaurant-style setting. They recognized some children in the neighborhood surrounding the historic building wouldn’t have a regular hot meal when school had been let out for summer.

Co-founders Betty and Terry Snapp took it upon themselves to prepare spaghetti or meatloaf or chicken with salad, a vegetable with dessert in their kitchen. They would bring the food to the church’s educational building once a month to serve up to anyone who wanted a hot meal that summer. The meals soon turned to twice a month and then to every Wednesday with the help of church volunteers.

Also blossoming with the growing dinner community came a lending library, clothes distribution, personal hygiene products, holiday celebrations and connections to social services.

Terry Snapp said that after a year and a half of working on this project, he began to wonder if they should continue the program. During a snowstorm in January of 2010 he showed up to open the doors for the weekly dinner and found about a dozen people standing in the storm waiting to be let in.

“That was a turning point for us,” he said.

As involvement grew, Terry began soliciting funds from donors and the church to cover the cost of the food preparation. More church members started volunteering. “There was strength in congregation to step up,” Betty said.

Likewise, other civic organizations took note. Cornerstone of Christ and St. Mark’s Catholic Church began bringing meals and serving food to the nearly 100-plus people showing up for the weekly dinner.

Grants from the World Hunger Fund and the city of Independence helped keep the meals coming. Terry Snapp created a sponsorship program for individuals and groups to further fund the program which soon became self-sustaining.

Now, Community Services League’s affiliation has provided the program with a continuing source of support. Plus, they ensure there are different organizations or groups lined up to volunteer each week to serve the sit-down meal.

The organization has served up nearly 82,000 meals since those first days of the Snapps preparing food in their kitchen. Approximately 200 to 250 people shuffle through the doors each Wednesday for the hot meals. But the majority of the guests who show up weekly say it’s not necessarily the food they’re after.

Several noted how they enjoy the camaraderie of seeing a familiar face each week or chatting with the volunteers who staff the kitchen and dining hall.

“One of the forms of poverty we serve is the poverty of isolation and loneliness,” Graeff-Vinck said. “We hear, ‘You are the only people we see all week.’ ”

“What they’re telling you is that you are the only opportunity (they) have for human interaction day after day; week after week.”