LA GRANDE — Many summer traditions, including festivals, parades and sporting events, are on hold in La Grande this summer because of the coronavirus pandemic, but at least one is continuing in a big way — the serving of free lunches at the Riveria Activity Center.

Community Connection of Northeast Oregon is again providing free midday meals at Riveria to all youths age 1-18 each weekday just as the nonprofit has done each summer since 2005.

The program got off to a bit of a slow start its first day on June 8 when just 40 youths showed up for lunch. But it gained momentum with microwave-like quickness.

Now an average of close to 100 youths a day have been coming for lunch with a high of 144 on June 12.

Loran Moltman, the summer food program supervisor at the Union County Senior Center, credits the increase to rapid communication among the families the program is helping.

“The word got out,” Moltman said.

The lunches Moltman helps prepare are available on a grab-and-go basis. Nobody is allowed to eat meals inside the Riveria Activity Center because of state social distancing rules to protect people from the coronavirus pandemic. The food service staff at the Union County Senior Center prepares the meals under the leadership of Sydney Gleeson, the center’s food service manager.

In previous summers, staff prepared the meals for youngsters at the Riveria Activity Center. This year, however, workers are preparing the meals at the senior center. The staff already prepares the meals for seniors, so preparing the meals for youth boosts efficiency.

Moltman serves the meals at Riveria with assistance from volunteers, including Gerry Montgomery, who is heartened by the enthusiastic responses she receives from children.

“Their faces light up,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery noted during one particularly busy day a boy who appeared to be 9 or 10 asked her if she was being paid. When Montgomery said she was a volunteer, the boy seemed upset.

“He said, ‘You should get paid, you work too hard not to be paid,’” Montgomery recalled.

She said children like that make working as a volunteer a joyful experience. Jeanette Wilson, a fellow volunteer, shared this sentiment, noting that time flies for her because she so likes helping others.

“An hour (assisting at Riveria) seems like a few minutes,” Wilson said.

Judy Sherman, also a volunteer, offered a similar expression.

“I have so much fun I can’t stand it,” Sherman said.

The lunches Sherman helps serve are funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which reimburses Community Connection.

The lunches are available each weekday from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. As 12:30 p.m. approaches Moltman goes outside and announces that second servings are available.

The main courses of the meals served include enchiladas, roast pork, chicken and hot dogs. Moltman said hot dogs have proven the most popular entree this summer. They were the main course on Friday when the lunch program had its highest turnout of 144.

Like her volunteer staff, Moltman indicated her work is a labor of love.

“It is super fun,” she said. “I have always liked cooking because I like making people happy.”

General assignment reporter

Beats include the communities of North Powder, Imbler, Island City and Union, education, Union County veterans programs and local history. Dick joined The Observer in 1983, first working as a sports and outdoors reporter.

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