It’s a sunny Monday morning in Washington, Pa., and about 20 people are chatting over donuts and coffee in the cafeteria of Washington Christian Outreach. After breakfast, they’ll stay for the morning sermon, and later they’ll be joined by as many as 200 more for the daily free lunch.
Jeanne Allender is sitting in a small office just nextdoor. At 83 years old, she doesn’t come in to volunteer every day anymore, but she still puts in three days a week at the organization she founded 40 years ago this month.
Allender said Washington Christian Outreach sprang from her women’s bible study group in the late '70s. She said she and her friends started running errands for Washingtonians in need. Soon, they started getting donations of clothing.
“So, what I started to do was just keeping working out of the trunk of the car," Allender said. "I’d call up different churches and I’d say, ‘Do you have a size 12, or a size 6 for children, a little boy?’ And they’d give me just that size, and I’d deliver them to the people that needed them. They’d call me. It got around real quick.”
Since then, the story of Washington Christian Outreach has been one of nearly constant growth. Five years in, the group moved into the classroom of a local church, but it soon became apparent they were outgrowing that space as well. The church raised enough donations to buy the nonprofit group a small cinderblock garage, but Allender said she always had her eye on a former gas station owned by the Sheetz company.
"Every time I went by it, I’d always make my husband chuckle a little bit. I’d say, ‘Building, you belong to Washington Christian Outreach, in Jesus’ name,’" Allender said. "And he’d laugh, and we’d come back, and I’d do the same thing.”
Eventually, thanks in part to a discounted sale from the Sheetz company and a generous loan from a local bank, Allender was able to garner enough money to move into that building, which is large enough to house a kitchen, a cafeteria, a pantry, a clothing ‘store,’ and even a walk-in freezer. A steady corps of volunteers comes in daily to prepare and serve meals, arrange for families to make free clothes-shopping trips, and carry out other programs, like Blessings in a Backpack and an annual Christmas toy drive.
“Not even Trump, with all his millions, could do a ministry like this," Allender said. "Oh, he could have a real elaborate one, real beautiful, but he couldn’t have one like this, because it’s by the spirit of the Lord. Our Lord did this. We don’t get paid. We don’t sell anything. We just do it for him.”
Allender said one of her most vivid memories at Washington Christian Outreach is of a homeless man named Donald, who she started helping in the late '90s. She says simple gestures from her and the volunteers, like a gift of canned food or even just a hug, meant a lot to him.
“I said, ‘Hug Donald,’ and everybody would hug him, and he was so impressed with that, that we would just hug him, as dirty as he was, and smelled," Allender said. "But we loved him, and we wanted him to know that.”
Allender said Donald has since died from cancer. She dedicated her first community service award in his honor.
Even after 40 years at the helm, Allender said she’s going to keep leading Washington Christian Outreach as long as she can.
“Even if I can’t walk, I’ll still be up here," she said. "I love my job.”