For about 10 months, Jillian Pennington’s family has relied on the free daily dinners provided by Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Dubuque.

With a household of 11, dinnertime can often be hectic. So when the nonprofit started offering community meals at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, they decided to give it a try.

Not only have the meals given them more time to sit down together in the evening, but they also are something Pennington knows she can count on in a time marked by uncertainty.

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“The Boys & Girls Club has been a major support in not just our lives, but our kids’ lives,” she said. “It’s awesome. The staff there is great. They look out for the best interest of all children. They are just really wonderful.”

Today, the local club expects to distribute its 100,000th free meal since March 23, when officials started offering hot meals each weekday at locations throughout the city to help families feeling the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Executive Director Brian Meyer.

“For me personally, and for the Boys & Girls Clubs, it’s been wonderful to see the collaborative efforts and that needs are being met that weren’t being met previously,” Meyer said.

Officials launched the organization’s meal program in the 1990s, starting out just serving meals at the club and later expanding to offer summer meals in partnership with the City of Dubuque.

But when the pandemic struck, club Director of Food Services Dan Reiter knew more needed to be done to feed families impacted by COVID-19 and was eager to launch the community dinner program.

The effort started in March, with staff and volunteers providing about 600 meals per day across about 15 sites. Now, they serve about 400 meals daily across five locations.

“One hundred thousand is definitely an important milestone for us,” Reiter said. “We never envisioned the program would extend this long. It is important to keep a steady pace so people can enjoy a hot meal every night.”

The meal program is funded largely by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and also is supported by local private donors.

Brian Feldott, recreation program supervisor for the City of Dubuque’s Leisure Services Department, happily partnered with the club to plan the meal sites for both the summer program this year and the continuation of the dinners.

“It’s been nice to be able to partner with them and provide these meals,” he said. “A lot of these people that are coming to get these meals need them and depend on them.”

Several area businesses and organizations also have donated to the program, Meyer said.

“Everybody has been so generous and willing to work together,” he said. “From a funding standpoint, people have been very generous, whether it’s businesses granting opportunities or individuals just making sure that we can still provide this wonderful program for the community.”

Inside the Boys & Girls Clubs kitchen, Site Supervisor Nicholas Jones ensures all the meals are accounted for and go to the correct locations. Sometimes, he fills in and helps serve meals as well when the sites are short-staffed.

“It feels great,” he said. “Growing up, I didn’t have much, and I know how it feels to not have stuff. It feels really good to make sure that people have what they need.”

Volunteer Becky Jones heads out to Terrace Heights and later Flora Park every weekday to hand out meals to dozens of families.

She said that as she hands over each container, she feels a pang in her heart when she is greeted by moms, dads and children who cannot seem to thank her enough.

They tell her that without the meal, they don’t know what they would have done.

“It makes you feel really good to help other people,” she said. “I know they are really appreciative of the food. It’s pretty tough times.”