Kitchen volunteers
Photo courtesy of Nancy Buckwalter

SWAP volunteers Rachel Hershey and her son, Ross Hershey, from Parkesburg, Pa., work at Christ’s Hands in Harlan, Ky., to prepare a hot meal for the community and SWAP’s home-repair volunteers.



It takes partnerships to address the needs of hungry people in Harlan, Ky.

In the mid- to late-1990s, a group of Christians in Harlan, who were concerned about their neighbors who couldn’t get jobs or qualify for welfare, formed an organization called Christ’s Hands. One of the biggest needs in Harlan, Christ’s Hands determined, was for an evening meal.

To serve daily meals efficiently, Christ’s Hands needed an industrial kitchen. So Sharing With Appalachian People (SWAP), a home-repair program of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Great Lakes, used its building expertise in 1999 to construct an industrial kitchen and to remodel the dining area that had been used initially.

Christ’s Hands, which has now served more than 400,000 meals,  and SWAP, which has been active in Harlan for 30 years, continue to work together today.

On a typical SWAP summer week, different groups of volunteers stay at a forestry camp in Harlan while they repair homes in the area and learn about Appalachian issues and culture. SWAP summer staff and several volunteers prepare the evening meal for the volunteers.

SWAP volunteers put a roof over the back porch of this house in Harlan in 2012.MCC photo/Silas Crews
Last summer, the designated SWAP cooks spent each Tuesday at Christ’s Hands helping to cook a typical regional meal of soupbeans, corn bread and greens. When SWAP volunteers finished at their construction sites, they all came to Christ’s Hands to eat.

“We encourage them to mingle with the locals that eat there regularly,” said Stephanie Broersma, SWAP location coordinator in Harlan. Following the meal, a community speaker shared about the area and cultural richness.

Elizabeth Kimmel from Carlisle, Ohio, has served as SWAP summer staff the past four summers. She enjoyed the time working in the Christ’s Hands kitchen alongside local residents who were fulfilling their community service hours for government assistance and rehabilitation programs, along with other local volunteers.

“Hearing their stories about their children and everything they’d gone through and getting to connect with them was really great,” she reflected.

Typically Christ’s Hands cooks around 100 meals five nights a week, plus the last Sunday of the month. About 40 of those meals are taken to homebound folks each time.

Our clients are usually struggling with daily life, and SWAP volunteers provide an uplifting spirit.”

- Bryan Toll, director of Christ’s Hands

“One of the most important aspects of this partnership is the positive attitudes that the SWAP volunteers bring,” said Bryan Toll, director of Christ’s Hands. “Our clients are usually struggling with daily life, and SWAP volunteers provide an uplifting spirit.”

Emma Stutzman, from Orrville, Ohio, worked at Christ’s Hands with SWAP last summer through the Service Opportunities with Our Partners, a program of Mennonite Mission Network.

This was her fourth time volunteering in Harlan. She enjoyed her time building relationships with the other volunteers and local folks. “I feel God has blessed me with having this opportunity,” said Stutzman, who is 72. “I can be of service without going thousands of miles away.”Christ’s Hands also operates a food pantry in Harlan County, where more than 30 percent of the residents lived below the poverty line in 2013. The food pantry distributes donated food and meat canned by MCC.

SWAP was instrumental in forging a partnership with Midwest Food Bank starting in 2015 to bring semi trucks of food to the tri-country area where the food is distributed to various food pantries, including Christ’s Hands.

In addition to helping with meals at Christ’s Hands, SWAP volunteer groups worked at Christ’s Hands almost every week this past summer, building bunk beds in the hospitality center, putting a new roof over the food pantry and doing other general maintenance.

And the two organizations have worked together on family service nights where people packed MCC hygiene kits, some of which went to MCC for international distribution and some of which were distributed locally.

“The positive and excited attitude SWAP volunteers bring for serving," said Toll, "also transfers to our local volunteers in bringing a renewed energy and compassion in serving.”

Learn more about SWAP volunteer and service opportunities!