Volunteers assemble Christmas food boxes last year in an airplane hangar at Southwest Oregon Regional Airport in North Bend. The annual project, organized by the Knights of Columbus, feeds 1,300 households. (Courtesy Knights of Columbus Council 1261)
Volunteers assemble Christmas food boxes last year in an airplane hangar at Southwest Oregon Regional Airport in North Bend. The annual project, organized by the Knights of Columbus, feeds 1,300 households. (Courtesy Knights of Columbus Council 1261)

NORTH BEND — Mike Main grew up in the 1960s near this town on the southern Oregon coast. The house brimmed with nine children. Sometimes, he and his siblings would return home from Coos Catholic School to find their mother anxious because she had no food to cook. Main and his brothers would take the rifle into the hills to shoot a deer.

Now owner of a rock crushing company, a member of Holy Redeemer Parish and a Knight of Columbus, Main helps lead a massive annual project that provides Christmas food boxes to almost 1,300 families. He is motivated by memories of his youth.   

“I just felt that we are not the only ones who had issues like that, especially in our area when the timber companies started to close up,” Main says. “I decided I am going to help people as much as I can.”

The Knights of Columbus on the south coast, Council 1261, have sponsored the Christmas food basket program for 36 years. It started with a couple dozen widows at parishes. Now, the knights rent an airplane hangar and have families drive through to receive a box on the weekend before Christmas. The program distributes 110,000 pounds of food to people on the peripheries — aiming to improve their physical, mental and emotional health.

“These are people who often don’t know how they’ll get their next meal,” says Bob Adams, a member of St. Monica Parish in Coos Bay who is district deputy and state programs chairman for the knights. 

About 1 in 4 people in Coos County receive federal food aid. In southern Oregon, 63 percent of grade schoolers and 46 percent of high schoolers qualify for free and reduced cost meals at school. That nourishment isn’t available during Christmas break. “This project helps fill the gap,” says Adams.

If there are children, the boxes include a small toy. Some parents say it might be the only Christmas gift the child receives that year. 

Each November, parishes on the south coast take up a collection to buy supplies for the project. The knights also organize an annual benefit dinner and auction, held at Holy Redeemer Parish. It raises about $5,000.

Organizers are touched by the generosity of local Catholics. At the same time, the food basket effort has created strong and unusual partnerships in the county.

Public schools help the Knights of Columbus identify families who are in need but who might be too shy to ask for help. Businesses donate funds and even forklifts to carry pallets of food. The local home-health agency takes food boxes to people who are homebound. 

Cub Scouts, Key Club members and even a college swim team have chipped in. The fire chief and coast guard officers turn up to help.

Youths hundreds of miles away near McMinnville glean the fields each fall and bring 55,000 pounds of produce to North Bend to help fill boxes with healthy provisions. The local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day saints donates tens of thousands of dollars each year and sends large teams of volunteers, including youth groups.

“I think it’s a great program,” says Dr. Steven Tersigni, state president of the Mormon Church and a surgeon at North Bend Medical Center.

Volunteers, especially the youths, “learn there is a great need in our community and they learn to reach out to their fellow man,” Dr. Tersigni says. 

The food basket project is a logistical “marvel,” says Mike Lehman, head of the South Coast Food Share, the regional food bank. “It’s a machine-like operation.”

Beyond the orchestration, the effort gives hope to many families, Lehman explains. “It’s unbelievable the impact it has on the community,” he says. “It really shows these families that people care. That’s a big factor.”

One recipient wrote a note of thanks: “I can say that for people in need, kindness is a powerful force. Sometimes all one needs is a small act, a word or gesture, to point them in a better direction.”

Some have returned years later full of gratitude and wanting to volunteer.

“Whether they make a connection to the Catholic Church or not, when they hear ‘Knights of Columbus,’ they say, ‘Oh, the food guys,’” says Jim DeLong, a knight and also director of religious education at Holy Redeemer Parish.

Is this an act of evangelization? Not overtly, but sometimes that’s a powerful path. The knights slip prayer cards in the boxes, but there is no religious litmus test to receive the food. There only criterium is, are you hungry?

“It’s in how we deal with them when they come through,” DeLong says. “It’s all in our attitude of showing compassion to them. They can sense that. We don’t care how much they make, where they come from, if they work or if they don’t, or how many kids.”

Witnessing the program’s longstanding ethos of unconditional love is what attracted DeLong to become Catholic in 1992 and a Knight of Columbus soon after: “I couldn’t understand. ‘Who are these people who are doing things for others and not expecting anything in return? I’d never experienced that.”

The men suggest that other parishes and groups wanting to do something similar start small and see where it leads. “We just do our silly little things and then let God take care of it,” says Main.

Organizers are largely men with gray hair, or no hair. They are keen on finding younger leaders, but know how busy families are these days. 

Adams is delighted that his children get to take part in the charitable work. When he gets to the site, he has a deep sense of being in the right place. “This is who I am,” Adams says. “This is what I believe in.”

 

To help

Send checks to Knights of Columbus Food Basket Program

2250 16th St., North Bend 97459