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Selfless Acts

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Jennifer VanderLaan isn't one to judge a person based on appearance.

The 34-year-old wife and mother understands that no matter your background or social status everyone needs a helping hand at some point.

It's a lesson she learned a few years ago and a lesson she says God reminds her of every day. It's 11 a.m. and inside Booker T. Washington Recreation Center, VanderLaan takes one loaf of bread out of its package and neatly places slices side-by-side, organized into four rows of six.

"We've fed at least 3,000 people, easily," she says as she places slices of cheese on bread, followed by a slice of either ham or turkey.

Typically, weekends are reserved for extended mornings, lazy afternoons and activities that cater to one's own self, but VanderLaan dedicates at least one Saturday morning each month to others.

One hundred and forty-two bread slices make 71 sandwiches that VanderLaan and her mother, Sherry Reeves, pack into brown paper bags, making free lunches for anyone who walks through the door.

"Hi, how are you?" she says in her welcoming, subtle-southern Texas accent. "I'm Jennifer."

"Max," says one patron as he walks into the center's kitchen dressed in a blue work jumpsuit.

"Nice to meet you, Max," VanderLaan says as she shakes his hand. "How many lunches would you like?"

"Just one."

"Alright, would you like turkey, ham or peanut butter and jelly?"

"Ham."

She hands him one of the brown paper bags, gives him an orange and declines to take any donations from him.

"Do you know anybody, a neighbor or somebody else that might need a lunch and you can take one to them?" she asks.

"Yeah. Let's get him the ham."

"OK, let's do that. There's no need for you to eat alone, maybe you can eat with your friend," she says with a smile.

"I think I'll do that," he says.

Sack Lunch Saturday, a donation-driven community program headed by VanderLaan, began almost four years ago.

Every second Saturday, VanderLaan invites people from the community into the recreation center for a free lunch.

It's doesn't matter what kind of car a person drives or how clean their clothes look, if they want a free lunch, VanderLaan will give them one. No questions asked.

Like most people who seek a free lunch, VanderLaan once experienced a rough patch herself. A previous marriage ended in divorce and left VanderLaan searching for a bit of guidance.
She went to the place that led her to create the lunch program -- her church.

"God has blessed me with a good child there," Reeves says, as VanderLaan hands a couple of sack lunches to a pair of older women.

VanderLaan and her mother admit their work is a service to God and it's not about them.
Sack Lunch Saturday began when VanderLaan's church, First Baptist Cleburne, started a selfless-mission movement called For My Neighbor.

One suggestion for a project was to feed the community.
"We decided to do sack lunches because it was easy. You don't necessarily have to train people to do that," VanderLaan said. "There were a few donations to help us get started and we've been making sandwiches ever since, haven't we?"

On most days, VanderLaan and her mother are joined by other volunteers who help make sandwiches and help wave down motorists during lunch time who might like a snack.

Chris Smith, First Baptist Church associate pastor, also helps VanderLaan from time to time. Smith said he agrees with VanderLaan that kindness shouldn't happen once a month.

"This is a time for us to show the community that we care," he said. "We can't make lunches every day, but we can show kindness. Whether it's helping someone change a flat or helping them get something to eat."

VanderLaan tells the story of a man who admitted that he knew God hadn't forgotten about him but hard times had hit him hard.

One day he came to Sack Lunch Saturday and told VanderLaan that the lunch program showed him that there was still help, hope and people who cared about each other.

"It makes a big difference just to have someone ask you your name, shake your hand and ask if you need help," she said as she stuffs the last peanut butter and jelly sandwich into a plastic sandwich bag. "That's something easy we can do -- we should do it all the time anyhow."

For two hours, patrons as young as 10 and as old as 60 came to the center for a free lunch. Each person received the same greeting -- a handshake, a look in the eye, a smile and a "nice to meet ya."

At 1 p.m., VanderLaan and Reeves wipe down the counters, sweep up crumbs and throw away the empty bread bags and meat trays.

The counter that held 71 brown paper bags is bare and Reeves, Smith and VanderLaan call it a day, but not before thanking God for his work.