Every Tuesday and Thursday, Velma Kerr leaves her farm and drives seven miles to the House of Prayer Mission in Chillicothe, Mo., (pop. 8,968) where she ties on an apron and starts dinner. Peeling potatoes, frying pork chops, shredding slaw, and baking desserts, Kerr and her volunteer staff provide meals for everyone who needs one.
“We don’t ask any questions. We don’t keep records,” says Kerr, 74, of the two dozen people who come for a meal. “We’re not here to judge. We feed anybody who’s hungry.”
While some are transients, most of the people served are locals, trying to stretch limited-income budgets. Kerr has a real heart for all people who come—week in and week out.
“They’re all so nice down here,” says Charlene Hicks, an eight-year regular from nearby Wheeling.
“They have good food, and the people are real friendly,” adds Candy Mills, who’s been coming to the mission for three years. “Mrs. Kerr’s a real nice person.”
Kerr and her husband, Fred, became involved with the House of Prayer Mission in 1982, after the Rev. Robert Jackson proposed a project beyond food pantry and meals-on-wheels programs. “He felt there was a need for a place to counsel and feed people,” Kerr says.
The couple helped with fund-raising. The chapel and basement dining area opened on Christmas Day 1983, and Velma prepared its first meal.
After Jackson left the mission in 1991, Fred headed its nine-member board, which now oversees the nondenominational, not-for-profit organization. Velma, already cooking one day a week, assumed kitchen responsibilities.
Over the last 19 years, the mission has served 50,000 meals thanks to donations, volunteerism, and Kerr’s capable hands. “The people in Chillicothe are so supportive,” she says. “The money always comes in. The food always comes in; we never run out.”
Post office, school, and church food drives replenish the pantry. Residents share extra produce from their gardens. An anonymous donor supplies turkey and fixings for Thanksgiving dinner, and local children bake pumpkin pies as a class project.
Carole Ann Jenkins, a member of Kerr’s Sunday school class for special needs adults, bakes brownies with Velma’s supervision. “Mrs. Kerr asked if I wanted to help,” Jenkins says. “I love it here. If I didn’t have this to come to, I’d be lost.”
Four-person teams prepare and serve meals more than 100 days a year. On Thanksgiving and Christmas, Kerr enlists two dozen volunteers to help serve or deliver up to 75 meals.
“She’s the matriarch of this ministry,” says Greg Hughes, administrator of United Methodist Church in Chillicothe, who offers the devotional before each meal. “I don’t think it would exist without her.”
Last year, Kerr was the unanimous choice for the Chillicothe’s Rotary Club’s Unsung Hero Award. The award recognized her many contributions to the community, including volunteering at the Bishop Hogan Memorial School, visiting nursing homes, and working on Habitat for Humanity homes.
“She helps out wherever she’s needed,” says Ruth Siberling, a Rotary Club member.
Feeding more people and finding a permanent director top Kerr’s wish list for the House of Prayer Mission.
“It’s a joy helping others,” Kerr says. “I get more out of it than they do. I’m privileged to be part of it.”