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— Each month on designated Sundays, a group of women seeking community, a way to give back to the community, and find creative outlet through cooking gathers at the Lemon Springs Ruritan Club to prepare hot meals for those in need. In about three and a half hours, the diverse group takes fresh, wholesome ingredients, turns them into tasty, filling dinners, and delivers them to residents in the area’s emergency shelters.

Dubbed Friendship Kitchen, the endeavor is led by Executive Chef Sarah Sligh, whose mantra and mission is camaraderie and nourishment for the community. Since earlier this year, it has had the support of the Lemon Springs Ruritan Club, who use its kitchen regularly, bought a freezer and two refrigerators and helped stock the pantry with basic groceries. All individuals in the cooking group have been accepted into club membership and all other Ruritan members are welcome and encouraged to attend the cooking sessions. Lemon Springs is a small community in the city of Sanford, Lee County. The Lemon Springs Ruritan Club is the only Ruritan club in the county.

“Sarah’s number one goal is to help others,” says Bonnie Cupps, President of the Lemon Springs Ruritan Club. “She’s always assuming what she can do to feed people. The entire goal of the Ruritan Club is public relations. It fits well.”

Lemon Springs Ruritan Club

“I’m amazed to meet such a group of community-minded minds – they want to give back,” says the club’s Sligh.

Core members of Friendship Kitchen are Sarah Sligh, Wendy Tomblin, Christine Wenrich and Eileen Murphy. Sligh and Tomblin are the only two real cooks. Sligh is a graduate of Central Carolina Community College’s culinary program and Executive Chef at Angelina’s Kitchen in Pittsboro. Tomblin is the former baker and owner of a bakery in Pittsboro called The Country Bakeress. The Covid pandemic impacted their careers and helped bring the group together. Sligh temporarily lost her position and Tomblin was forced to close down her business and sell her house. Both women were determined to keep doing what they love to do. By the time they met Murphy at the Sanford Farmers Market, she had also lost her job due to Covid. When asked what the cooking group means to her, Wenrich remembers: “A long time ago I was a single parent and needed help. I know how it feels and it makes me feel better to be able to do that.”

Each member contributes individual skills and talents. Sligh calls Wenrich, a retired Navy veteran, seamstress and jack of all trades, her “right hand arm in the kitchen, working like a sous chef, doing prep work, packing, deliveries, pickups and shopping. Wendy (Tomblin) is our cheer in the kitchen, our baker and has tons of experience in the non-profit space,” says Sligh. Tomblin now works in the hospice community. “Eileen (Murphy) is our music and our laugh and does everything. She’s a project manager at a medical supply company, a “give me a job” person.” Sligh holds a ServeSafe certification, which comes from the County Health Department.

“Sundays are about community, conversations that are good,” says Sligh. “Coming together and cooking creates community.”

 Lemon Springs Ruritan Club

Friendship Kitchen currently provides meals for Outreach Mission, Inc. (OMI) in Sanford; Bread of Life Ministries of Sanford; Port in Lee County, Inc.; and the navigation center. OMI operates shelters for men, women and children. Bread of Life Ministries is a cold weather shelter and pantry. Haven provides shelter to residents coming out of situations of domestic violence and sexual assault. The Navigation Center provides assistance to the homeless and others in need through the Lee County Salvation Army.

“If there’s an organization that needs it, we’d reach out,” says Cupps. “We’ve already talked about growing and getting more donations so we can provide more.” With each cooking session alone, the group provides 40 meals for Outreach Mission.

Homelessness is a major contributor to meal needs. According to Outreach Mission President Hamer Carter, Outreach Mission has an average of approximately 36 clients at any given time between its two emergency shelters, which served 386 people in 2021. Carter cites the lack of affordable housing, rental income demands, job shortages, low wages, and individual and family issues all contributing to homelessness. “We’re full all the time,” says Carter.

“Although we have food to cook there, they often don’t eat regularly. Some can’t cook; others are not very good cooks. It’s easier to pick up a soup or a can of beans,” says Carter. “Cooking is a life skill that we try to help our customers with. The great advantage that the ladies give us is to give us healthy meals. Customers are happy about the meals because they are always tasty and healthy.”

“It’s healthier to cook,” says Cupps. “We try to make sure everything they offer is allergy-friendly.”

“Nothing makes you feel more vulnerable than your most basic human needs, especially when you’re a parent with kids to support,” says Tomblin. “It shouldn’t be something for people to worry about. We all have lives and responsibilities but this is one thing we can do that will actually make a difference in someone’s life today and so we think if we can do this one thing let’s do it.

 Lemon Springs Ruritan Club

Friendship Kitchen relies on donations of food and other supplies from individuals, farmers, producers and organizations including the Lemon Springs Ruritan Club. “We have already spoken to three farmers in anticipation of the growing season – White Hill Farms; Steve McNeil Farm; and another local farmer who has about 70 chickens – via donations for eggs, strawberries, fresh fruit and vegetables,” says Cupps. “It’s harder to get donated meat.” “Some donations come through as surplus, like flour,” says Sligh.

“The way we return the favor is that we go out and raise funds that the group can use in their preparations,” says Carter. “We have relationships with Tyson and Mountaire. We can’t provide everything, but a few things that will help them.” Bread of Life Ministries has also helped with donations, including meat.

Friendship Kitchen found a home at the Lemon Springs Ruritan Club after Bonnie Cupps spotted an article posted to Facebook with a photo of Sarah Sligh. In the photo, Sligh briefly cooked meals for animal shelter clients in the kitchen at Camelback Brewing Company in Sanford. However, this wasn’t the first time she met Sligh. Another cooking group, Robin Hood, which formed in the fall of 2020 and of which Sligh was a founding member, had cooked in the Lemon Springs Ruritan Club kitchen for a time. Robin Hood, with a similar mission, operated in both Lee and Chatham Counties, but in 2021 the leadership decided to only serve Chatham County and discontinued use of the club’s kitchen. Robin Hood members split from Sligh and chose to continue serving Lee County.

Cupps quickly saw an opportunity to help continue the work in Lee County and invited Sligh’s then-unnamed group to join the Lemon Springs Ruritan Club, use its kitchen, and accept support. Hamer Carter of Outreach Mission is a club member and plays a key role in working with local shelters.

The Lemon Springs Ruritan Club has a long history of community engagement. The club works with Outreach Mission to adopt children who are in shelters or who have left for Christmas support in the past six months. “We buy gifts and what they need,” says Cupps.

Greenwood Elementary School is supported as needed and all staff are fed once a year in recognition of their work. For the past 20 years, the club has provided a $600 college scholarship to a high school graduate. For a time only nursing students were eligible, but now all areas are eligible. Applications are open to both public and private schools. This year’s deadline is the 30th.

A major fundraiser for the Lemon Springs Ruritan Club is an annual golf tournament. This year’s tournament will be held on September 24th at Sanford’s Quail Ridge Golf Course. In July, the club sells tickets for a fundraiser raffle, with the winner receiving a cash prize. “Last year was great,” says Cupps. “The winner donated the money to the club – really great.”

The use of the kitchen revolves around renting it out for birthday parties, baby showers, wedding dinners and the like, increasing the club’s financial resources.

Historically, Ruritan is a rural club. “It was started by farmers in 1951,” says Cupps. “Their participation affects rural communities more than cities.” Lemon Springs is located in Zone 3 of the Cape Fear District, which consists of five zones. There are 20 clubs in the district.

Friendship Kitchen, along with the Lemon Springs Ruritan Club, is ready to make a difference. “You gave us such an opportunity to do that,” says Sligh.

“My biggest feeling is that we’re a small organization, but we have to start somewhere,” says Cupps. “In this nation, the United States, no one should go hungry, but there are hungry people right in our backyard.”

Organizations or groups in need of meals, as well as potential donors of food, supplies and other support are encouraged to contact or message Lemonspringsruritankitchen@gmail.com the Lemon Springs Ruritan Facebook page.

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