There is a flurry of activity early Monday mornings at the Searsport First Congregational Church kitchen as Kindness Programs volunteers are busy preparing meals for their weekly distribution on Friday.

The aroma of chicken cordon bleu and broccoli cheddar soup wafts through the halls and several group members peel potatoes and squash, as they banter and laugh.

According to program co-coordinator Jayne Snowdale, the program initially started as a way to help local students with food insecurity, but now has blossomed into a meal program also encompassing seniors and shut-ins with delivery services to both.

"The program has grown and grown," Snowdale said, "We just want to let the elderly know this program is available."

Snowdale, along with Sandra Otis-Anderson, started the program, which currently serves about 160 to 200 people a week, in 2019. "And that number goes up in the winter time," Snowdale added. Early in the pandemic, the group delivered as many as 300 meals. The program serves between 80 and 110 schoolchildren.

Veterans, shut-ins, and patients coming home from the hospital are just a few of the people who have taken advantage of this free service. The program has also provided meals for the Tall Pines nursing facility in Belfast.

While 95% of the meals go to seniors, Anderson said, some go to people who are handicapped and cannot get out.

Anderson said the interaction between the drivers and shut-ins is also important. "It gives them a chance to see someone and chit-chat," she said. One person even graciously gave Snowdale's husband, who delivers meals, a hosta plant.

This summer, the group began the Kindness Garden in Stockton Springs. The town provided land to start a vegetable garden for the program, and a volunteer cleared and plowed the field. "Six of us went and planted greens, cucumbers, beets and several different kinds of tomatoes," Snowdale said. "We then couldn't walk for a couple of days."

Fresh vegetables are also provided by the Coastal Regional Reentry Center Garden.

"It's really become a community project," she said, adding that they service all of Waldo County.

The program is financed entirely by donations, Snowdale said, with many area churches contributing. The North Searsport and downtown United Methodist Church, Stockton Springs Community Church, Sandy Point Congregational Church and Safe Harbor Community Church have all supported the program.

"You don't have to be a member of any church to take part in the Kindness Program," Anderson added.

Snowdale said the group is also a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which "makes it easier to apply for grants."

Volunteer Charlene Knox-Farris, who is also town historian, said she has enjoyed coming in and working alongside the other volunteers. "This is a church I've been a part of since I was a child," she said. "And it's good to give back to the community in this way."

Farris, who helps with peeling potatoes today, is also the group's public relations person and hopes to get the word out that this program exists, "so people will know this is going on in the community," she said.

People enrolling are asked to fill out an initial application alerting the staff of any food allergies. The program provides a variety of foods each week with a typical bag for a single child including seven breakfast and lunch items plus snacks.

The senior meals program includes four meals per person with large servings that can serve two people. Pickup is on Friday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the vestry of the First Congregational Church on Knox Bros Avenue, and arrangements for delivery can be made by calling Snowdale at the number below.

Snowdale said, "Every meal has a label that describes how to cook it. Nancy Hamilton does all the labeling."

A sampling of menu items includes pork roast, beef stew, broccoli cheddar soup, and the number-one favorite, meatloaf, which she said is prepared by her husband.

To make a monetary donation, checks can be mailed to Kindness Programs, P.O. Box 526, Searsport, ME 04974. To sign up for the Kindness Programs, call Jane Snowdale at 407-694-8733 or Sandra Otis-Anderson at 548-6530.