It's early on a Thursday afternoon, and little Mariyah Louthaman, 4, is swinging furiously on a play structure outside Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Livermore.
Inside, in a modest dining room fragrant with the aroma of chicken casserole, her mother, Miesha, is in a buffet line, filling a plate with chicken and vegetables provided free of charge by Open Heart Kitchen. She and Mariyah will share this meal, then take home a generous helping for dinner, to be eaten with older daughter Syraiah, 6, who's still at school on this sunny autumn day.
Today's casserole isn't merely the only home-cooked food this little family will have today; it's a meal that makes it possible for Louthaman to pay the other bills necessary to stay afloat. When her marriage ended during her second pregnancy, this well-spoken, stay-at-home mother found herself in financially desperate straits.
"I've been in a spiral and living in a motel for one-and-a-half years," she said, offering Mariyah a forkful of chicken. "I've been coming here more often because I have nowhere to cook. Now I depend on this ... I'll take it home and warm it up in a toaster oven. We need it to survive, and it makes everything less of a burden for me. It's fresh and home-cooked. It's not my own food, but it's not a store-bought frozen meal or something prepackaged."
The food served at this site weekly is part of the 263,000 meals served in Livermore, Dublin and Pleasanton each year by Open Heart Kitchen, a nonprofit, nondenominational organization established in 1995. A lack of funding nearly shut the program down five years ago, but it was pulled back from the brink by newly appointed Executive Director Linda McKeever and her staff, who appealed to the community for help.
"We basically went out and let people know who we are and what we do," McKeever said. "We went to associations and clubs. ... Once people realized we were not federally funded, when they realized it was by the grace of the community that we exist, they started coming forward."
Today, Open Heart is a safety net for hundreds of low-income adults and children. It's supported by groups as diverse as the Livermore Rotary Foundation, Safeway Foundation, Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and a host of other individuals, organizations and businesses. Collaboration with these groups and other support agencies has been the key to success, McKeever said.
"I think this is a very unique program in that we don't duplicate services and we try to work with other agencies in a very cooperative way, not competing," she said. "I truly believe it's about cooking up the right resources with the people in need and making it very personalized. You have to be willing to put in the time and effort -- it's very time-consuming and you have to have a passion for it."
Open Heart Kitchen rotates its meal sites each day throughout the Tri-Valley area, including two senior centers. Volunteers also pack up and deliver hundreds of weekend box lunches each Friday to children at 14 elementary and middle schools. Their meal recipients run the gamut from long-term homeless individuals to veterans to families struggling to pay the bills after a layoff or a reduction in work hours.
"There are a lot of people living two to three families in an apartment, or four to five families in a small house, and there are way more homeless out there than most people realize," McKeever said. "Everything isn't what it seems on the surface; people here will talk with you openly about how they lost their jobs or how tragedy put them in this situation.
"Our volunteers and staff know the community; we not only work here, but we live here," she said. "It's a very personal thing and very different from large programs."
Back at Vineyard Christian Fellowship, lunch service continues, while out back, a vibrant 74-year-old Dorothy Hardiman of Livermore is busily unloading a carload full of fresh bread and rolls -- a donation from a local grocery store. Hardiman began eating at Open Heart Kitchen in 2005, when illness and a job loss forced her out of her home.
"Every day I knew I could get a good meal," she said. "They're very compassionate, understanding and very helpful; they gave me advice on shelters and where I could find clothing."
Hardiman is no longer homeless but still counts on Open Heart Kitchen to make ends meet. She's among the many current and former food recipients who volunteer at Open Heart, picking up donations, delivering food, cooking, serving or cleaning up.
"I'm giving back because they gave to me, and I want to share that," she said.
Diana Wemer, a site supervisor for Open Heart, said she's seeing more families in need but knows a little help can go a long way. She recalled a recent chance meeting with a former client.
"He told me 'I got a job; you guys helped us so much that I can now provide for my family,' " she said. "That's what we hope and pray for."
Dec. 13 - 14 at 8 p.m. A holiday classic rock 'n' roll concert with a quintet of musicians from some of the biggest rock bands ever. They will perform holiday song favorites in the styles of all the top bands of our time, including Santana, The Who, Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, U2, Queen, and Sting and others.
The shows will benefit Open Heart Kitchen. Those attending are asked to bring food donations. Firehouse Arts Center, 4444 Railroad Ave., Pleasanton. Tickets $30-$40 available at www.firehousearts.org, 925-931-4848, or at the box office.
about open heart kitchen
Open Heart Kitchen serves hot meals each weekday at sites around the Tri-Valley. The free program is open to all in need.
Monday: Crosswinds Church, 6444 Sierra Ct., Dublin. 4 to 6 p.m.
Tuesday/Wednesday: Asbury United Methodist Church, 4743 East Ave., Livermore. noon to 6 p.m.
Thursday: Vineyard Christian Fellowship, 460 N. Livermore Avenue, Livermore. 1 to 6 p.m.
Friday: Trinity Lutheran Church, 1225 Hopyard Road, Pleasanton. 4 to 6 p.m.; and Vineyard Christian Fellowship, 460 N. Livermore Ave., Livermore, 4 to 6 p.m.
Seniors: Ridgeview Commons Senior Center, 5200 Case Ave., Pleasanton. 4 to 6 p.m. weekdays. The site is open to all low-income seniors in Pleasanton, Livermore and Dublin. There is an optional $3 donation.
Donate: Open Heart Kitchen always needs donations of time, money and food. Foods most needed include canned goods, preferably in bulk; fresh fruits and vegetables, coffee, pasta and juice boxes. Turkeys and stuffing mix are especially welcome during the holidays. Also needed are kitchen, cleaning and office supplies. Donations may be left at Ridgeview Commons Senior Center, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.
Details: Visit www.openheartkitchen.org or call 925-580-6793.
New site needed: A new Dublin location is needed for meal service. For details, call 925-580-6793.