Jennifer and Brian Thompson reared their son Jared to love others regardless of their income. And he learned the lesson well.
“He's a quiet guy,” Jennifer Thompson said. “But all this time, he's been soaking it all up.”
Jared Thompson, 18, of Huntertown, founded and operates a free meal program at his local church. He believes if you have the ability to help someone in need, you have the responsibility, and his philosophy began with his upbringing.
“He's always been taught these are my brothers and sisters and mom and dad, and we love them and respect them,” said Jennifer Thompson, who was raised in an underprivileged household.
Jared Thompson is an active member at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Fort Wayne. He's served on the Youth Advisory Council for four years and participated in mission trips around the country. But he always wanted to serve locally.
“Aldersgate has opportunities for service, but what I felt I didn't see enough of was a connection to the community we're in,” he said.
So he founded a program that brings people to the church. Today, he is the co-executive director of Me'N'U, a free meal program for local people every Thursday night from 6 to 7 p.m. at Aldersgate.
In June 2010, Jared approached Aldersgate Youth Pastor Kent Lundy of Huntington about starting a youth-led community meal.
“Kent was very excited,” Thompson said. “He let me take it on myself so I had ownership of it.”
Lundy prepared Thompson for meetings with the Youth Board and the Rev. Derek Weber, lead pastor, but he let Thompson handle administrative responsibilities, including seeking funding from church members. When Thompson presented his idea to the congregation, people were hungry to contribute.
“Food is something a lot of us take for granted,” Thompson said. “We don't think about if we're going to have a meal on our tables tonight; we think about what we're going to have to eat tonight. But it's also something a lot of people struggle with.”
In 2011, the USDA reported more than one million Hoosiers are unable to access enough nutritious food for all members of their household, and 40 percent of that population does not qualify for government support.
After months of researching, planning and recruiting, Me'N'U's first meal was served Jan. 20, 2011, and the program has served more than 140 meals every week for the past three months.
But Me'N'U isn't the average self-service soup kitchen. Instead, guests are seated in the church's gymnasium-turned-restaurant where 10-15 youth and adult volunteers serve them. Silverware is wrapped in napkins. Flower vases decorate all 15 tables.
“We want to give them this night, so they don't have to go through regulations or stand in lines,” Thompson said. “This is a night for them.”
In February, Thompson was the recipient of Indiana's NewsCenter's Extra Mile Award, honoring ordinary people who do extraordinary deeds. He attributes his success to support, organization, commitment and patience.
“You have to find something you're passionate about, commit to it and be in it for the long haul,” Thompson said. “Then you have to hope that you're making a difference and have patience to see it through to the end.”
Me'N'U has made a difference.
Thompson sees some of the same faces at the meals Thursday nights in the pews Sunday mornings and around the church during the week.
“Two individuals started coming to the Wednesday morning Bible study at Aldersgate,” Thompson said. “The first time they came, they raised their hands and said, 'We can't read.' So the study group began reading the Bible verses out loud. Things are changing.”
Change is a good thing, according to Thompson's Co-Executive Director Steve Lundergan of Fort Wayne, who has watched Thompson grow from a timid child to a compassionate leader.
Lundergan hopes Me'N'U will help the church become more diverse and interracial.
But for Thompson, one of Me'N'U's primary roles is encouraging youth to value community service.
“Jared gave the youth a very visible example that you can accomplish a lot,” Lundergan said. “You may be 16 or 17, but if you've got a great idea, you can do a lot.”
This month, Lundergan's daughter, Lucy, 18, started a community garden at Aldersgate to provide homegrown vegetables for Me'N'U guests.
When Thompson leaves to study nonprofit management at Indiana University in the fall, he leaves the next generation of youth to manage Me'N'U with a powerful mission.
“Me'N'U is about how we can acknowledge that a problem that involves someone else in our community also touches our lives,” Thompson said. “If we pull together as a community, we can solve these problems.”