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Community volunteers work Thursday to help prepare and package some 3,500 sandwiches and other meal items for distribution to Poverello clients who are displaced by a sewage flood at the center. The Poverello typically serves 500 meals per day and was forced to close the kitchen and throw away all of the stored food Wednesday by the flood.

James Whitfield stood on one side of the counter at the First United Methodist Church on Thursday, carefully spreading peanut butter on bread with a spatula, then dropping a dollop of strawberry jam on another slice. He married the two bread slices, then passed the finished product down the makeshift production line.

“I’ve made many a PBJ in my day,” he says with a grin. “I don’t know if I should say it’s because I’m a bachelor that I’m so good at it, but I make PBJ’s in great fashion.”

Whitfield was one of 16 people who signed up to help the Poverello Center reach its goal of making 3,500 sack lunches Thursday and Friday to distribute to its clients, who were displaced after a backed-up pipe flooded the kitchen and basement with sewage Wednesday. The center typically serves about 500 meals per day to its homeless or low-income clients, but it closed the kitchen and threw out every ounce of food out of an “abundance of caution.”

The homeless shelter moved its food preparation efforts to the church, and put out a call for donations Wednesday afternoon. On Thursday, Jesse Jaeger, director of development and advocacy at the center, helped unload a truck of donated food at the church, and said he was thrilled with the generosity of Missoula-area residents and businesses.

“We’ve had people rolling up all morning; a person just brought in donations from the health clinic at Providence Hospital,” Jaeger said. “If we can make 3,500 sandwiches, I think that can get us through Monday next week.

“We could use a little more sliced cheese and meat, and granola bars. But the Missoula community has been incredibly helpful. When we have needs, they rise up and support us. This is another example of that.”

Amy Allison Thompson, the Poverello Center’s executive director, said they hope to have the kitchen re-opened by late Friday. However, she’s not counting on that and is working with their partners — like the church — to consider all options.

The center also is closing its doors during the day as it mops up and throws out bedding and mattresses in the large men’s dormitory that flooded in the basement. It re-opened temporarily Wednesday night and crammed about 165 people into its main floor and second floor, using mats loaned by the Salvation Army.

“Last night was incredibly challenging,” Allison Thompson said. “It was incredibly tight, and the arrangement we had last night is something we can’t do long-term. We hope to get the dorms in shape as soon as possible, maybe a week and a half or two weeks.

“We can keep doing what we are doing for the next couple days, but if this doesn’t work we’ll need to coordinate with our partners — the Salvation Army, churches and the Union Gospel Mission — to figure out something.”

Allison Thompson said they’re allowing people to hang out in the center’s courtyard during the day, and notified nearby residents and businesses of the situation.

“It’s going pretty smoothly at this point because the weather is nice,” Allison Thompson said. “If it was winter and 10 below (zero), I don’t know what we’d do.”

Once the Poverello’s kitchen reopens, Allison Thompson said they’ll be in dire need of basics like cooking oil, rice, flour, potatoes and other staples after throwing out an estimated 2,800 pounds of food after the flood. While the Poverello Center has insurance to cover some of the cleanup costs, she noted that they also need to pay the staff for the extra time they’ve put in during the past few days.

“We’ll probably primarily ask for financial donations because we need to do targeted staple drives,” she said. “We’ve had an outpouring of support from our community partners who are texting and calling to ask how they can help. Supportive donations will help get us through this crisis.”

Food donations can continue to be dropped off at First United Methodist Church on Friday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. They can’t accept any food donations at the Poverello Center due to a lack of storage and the possibility of contamination.

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