Food prep

Sheltering Arms Coalition founder David Peters helps prepare a meal aboard a mobile diner created to help feed Cherokee County’s homeless population.

Local resident leads mobile diner ministry

“Have meals, will travel” could very well be the motto for a mobile diner based out of Jacksonville, whose goal is ensure that no person goes hungry.

“We have an open policy that we will provide a meal, no questions asked,” said David Peters, founder of East Texas Sheltering Arms Coalition, which sponsors the project. “We have always made ourselves available to all that require and or request a meal.”

The faith-based, non-profit coalition launched Jan. 1, 2017, part of his goal to help end homelessness of East Texas veterans.

Although he isn't a veteran, Peters counts among friends and family those who have served in the military, and “I felt led to try to provide a hand up for this particular community, as they are our front-line Americans that so often sacrifice body and soul, and have often times had a difficult time re-acclimating back into their home communities,” he explained.

According to the statement posted at www.shelteringarmscoalition.com, the coalition would “develop a tiny home community to provide a community infrastructure that includes shelter, food, medical and mental healthcare, job training and placement services, as well as a social/community atmosphere for the homeless veterans of East Texas.”

The proposed community not only would have tiny homes (described on the website as “individual barracks”), but a mess hall, chapel, commissary, field clinic, training/recreational facilities and headquarters, as well.  

The endeavor would be a joint partnership with other organizations and other “like-minded individuals” that will serve our community by striving to end homelessness in East Texas, the site stated.

The journey to accomplish that goal, however, took a different turn than what Peters had originally imagined.

“The more I was finding out about working with the homeless, and trying to develop relationships with them,” Peters said he recognized that the process was “a long drawn out” one.

“So I decided that if the (proposed) tiny home community was going to be successful, the bus was going to be a big part of that, by being out on the street and building those relationships with those individuals,” he said.

Hence the mobile diner, a former 71-passenger school bus refurbished to look like a classic diner, only on wheels.

Renovation on the vehicle began in 2018, and on New Years' Day 2019, it rolled out for service. 

Today, volunteers spend their Sundays feeding those in need. First up is a stop at the Brookshire Brothers in Jacksonville, where hearty meals are dished up from 11:30 to 1 p.m., then on to the local Walmart from 1 to 2 p.m., before the mobile diner sets up at Rusk's Conley Park from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m.

Occasionally, he added, the bus makes an additional trip to the Weeping Mary community outside Alto.

Meals vary each week, and pizza is donated every second Sunday of the month by the Jacksonville Domino's and Rusk's Pizza Hut.

“The meals are decided on based on what we have available as well as what I can prepare on the bus and still comply with the Health Department's requirements,” Peters said.

An average of 50 meals are served each week, “but this is one of my struggles as I never know how many will show,” he said, adding that no person will be turned away.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on area residents has created an increase in numbers being served, “and we continue to see new people every week.  My only regret is that we are not allowing individuals on the bus to visit and get to know them,” Peters said, adding that the whole purpose of the diner is to “develop a relationship with those we are trying to help.”

Along with meals – which currently are offered only on take-out basis in order to be in compliance with pandemic guidelines  – volunteers launched an Easter basket project benefiting Alto-area children after tornadoes struck the area last year in mid-April.

“The small community of Weeping Mary was in need and we began extending our bus every week to provide them with a hot meal.  There was a lot of aid and service going into Alto at the time including plans for a large Easter celebration, but this community did not have the means to go into Alto, so I felt led to do something for them,” Peters recalled.

Messages via social media and email resulted in 100 baskets collected for the project. This year, because of the pandemic, area churches and organizations had to jettison traditional egg hunts and festivals. Peters and his volunteers to put the message out that baskets were needed to distribute to children in Jacksonville and Rusk.

“We were overwhelmed by the turnout.  We passed out over 160 meals and all 130 plus baskets/bags,” he said. “Between Brookshire Brothers and Walmart, I had to run back to the house for more food.”

Sheltering Arms welcomes donations and volunteers to assist with the ministry, including Class B CDL drivers who can help drive the mobile diner.

To learn more, contact David Peters, 903-571-1790, or write Sheltering Arms at P.O Box 2122, Jacksonville, TX, 75766.

Online, visit www.shelteringarmscoalition.com, or the Facebook page, “Sheltering Arms Coalition.”

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