LUCERNE – "I was very hungry as a kid," admits Yvonne Cox. "At a very young age, I decided if I ever made it, I would feed people."
This Tuesday, Cox will feed an entire auditorium of people for the fifth time.
Really Understanding Hunger (RU Hunger) is a program Cox developed in early February to help feed those in need in Lake County. Every Tuesday from 5 to 7 p.m. Cox opens up what she calls the "Dignity Diner" at the Lucerne Alpine Senior Center to feed people with no and low incomes.
At the Dignity Diner, Cox explains, people don't have to stand in line for a small commodity and deal with any discomfort or embarrassment. Instead, guests are invited to come in, sit down and be served.
Even children and adolescents are welcomed to come unattended. Full tables of kids and teens have been present at times, without any adults accompanying them.
The program started big and continues to increase. On the first night she opened, Feb. 13, Cox served 61 people. Two weeks ago, she served 87.
Cox described the response from her guests as being one of the most powerful feelings she has ever experienced: "When these people came in and started thanking me, it was overwhelming."
Cox puts out anywhere from $150 to $200 per week to provide food to RU Hunger, covering about 80 percent of the cost. Lakeview Market makes up the rest, donating breads and a variety of salads.
Cox has expressed gratitude and appreciation for Kenny and Deana Parlet, owners of the small-town market, for their generosity - especially after some of the large grocery stores turned her down.
In the beginning, Cox was cooking and preparing all of the food, but more and more volunteers have shown up to support the program. Cox has seen help in the kitchen from the Lucerne Alpine Senior Center chef – after his regular shift – as well as students from the junior high, who came last week on their own right after school, ready to help out. In addition, students from Cox's own dance class help serve, and each week, more and more of their family members and friends have been joining them.
The owners of Pet Acres in Upper Lake were the first to contribute food to RU Hunger's food pantry.
Even a few people who came to eat the first night returned the second night and thereafter to help serve others food.
"It's turning out better than I imagined," smiles Cox.
She says none of this would have been possible without her partner, Annie Barnes of Sunrise Foundation.
Cox advises: "Talk about your dreams out loud because you never know who's listening."
It was Barnes who overheard Cox's wish to open up a soup kitchen and who helped get the process in motion. Barnes handles the administrative side of their partnership and is currently working on funding for RU Hunger.
"The best thing in the world is having her in our corner," says Cox. "She's a wonderful, incredible woman. She made my dreams come true. I can't say much more."
Though RU Hunger targets people with no or low incomes, anyone is welcomed to come and eat. Donations are accepted for those who would like to pay to enjoy the great food, which changes each week.
Many have likened the Dignity Diner to a regular restaurant, and some have even boasted that the quality of food and service is superior – with no real waiting time and plenty of servers who are doing the job simply because they want to.
In the future, Cox wants to open four more Dignity Diners throughout the county – one per night – so that five nights a week, people are able to eat a full meal.
And a little further down the road? "I want to put Dignity Diners across the United States," she says.
The Lucerne Alpine Senior Center is located at 3985 Country Club Drive.
All types of donations are accepted for the RU Hunger program - time, labor, food, drink mixes, paper plates, to-go boxes, money, etc. To volunteer, donate, or for more information about RU Hunger, contact Yvonne Cox, (707) 274-8821.
E-mail Penny Dahl at firstname.lastname@example.org.