hen Julie Livingston organized her first hot meal for those in need in 2012, the pastor at the church in Brookline where she was hosting the event told her not to be disappointed if only a couple of people came.
“We were shocked when 30 or so people showed up,” said Livingston, Glenridge Lane, GROW Living Stones Executive Director. But it did confirm that her hunch about the location was correct. “We follow the food banks. At the end of the day, we don’t care who comes, but we know the communities that have the most food banks are the most in need.”
She started her nonprofit, Living Stones, in response to a nagging feeling that she should be doing more to help those who are struggling. Almost 10 years later, Living Stones has become GROW Living Stones, as the program now serves three South Hills communities and is expanding beyond its original food-based mission.
In addition to offering free buffet-style meals on Sundays at 4:30 p.m.—the second Sunday of the month at Baldwin United Presbyterian Church, the third Sunday of the month at North Way Christian Community Church in Dormont and the last Sunday at St. Catherine of Siena in Beechview—GROW Living Stones started offering free haircuts and health screenings this fall.
“We’ve gotten to know the people we serve. We call them ‘neighbors,’” said Lynn Bell, Woodland Drive, who has been involved with GROW Living Stones since its inception. “We did a questionnaire with them and found out that their top three needs are food, medical and dental, so we’re focusing on those areas.”
Bell, who retired from a career in corporate communications, met Livingston when they were working together at Westinghouse in the ‘80s. They became best friends. In fact, they decided to move their families to Mt. Lebanon at the same time in 1999. Now they do everything together, calling each other “Bub.” (“So that when we’re in the nursing home, we can remember each other’s name,” Livingston explained.) As such, Bell has played an integral role in GROW Living Stones’ history and expansion.
You don’t necessarily have to be “in need” to enjoy the food and fellowship offered at GROW Living Stones meals. Livingston has a friend who comes just because he enjoys the food and likes socializing at the “men’s table.” Yet most of their neighbors, she explained, tend to be older adults who are struggling financially. The majority are living on social security checks that just barely cover their rent, leaving very little for food and nothing for “luxuries” like toothpaste and soap.
“These folks are qualified to go to the food bank. Some do, but the majority don’t,” said Livingston. “Our one neighbor, John, says ‘I can’t handle another bag of rice. I have so many jars of peanut butter already. I don’t like children’s cereal.’ So he comes here. There’s a hot meal, he sits down and enjoys fellowship with neighbors. Then we say ‘Leftover Time!’ We give them to-go containers and they each get to go through the line as many times as they want, until all the food is gone.”
GROW Living Stones has had a presence in various South Hills communities over the years, but their current set of locations reflects areas where the need is high, and the venues are easily accessible via public transportation. The meals they receive also originate mostly in the South Hills, from a network of retirement facilities, businesses and restaurants that donate leftover food that would otherwise have gone to waste.
Volunteers pick up food throughout the week and drop it off at Beverly Heights Presbyterian Church, 1207 Washington Road, where Livingston and Bell are parishioners. The church donates the space—and pays the electric bills—for GROW Living Stones’ five commercial freezers.
“We’re not affiliated with the church,” Livingston said. “We are a 501c3 and separated, but at the end of the day, we are Biblically based.”
After planning and printing a well-balanced menu, the day of a meal, more volunteers thaw and reheat the food for that weekend in compliance with Allegheny County Health Department food safety regulations.
“We now have a division [of volunteers],” Livingston said. “We have those who really focus on the meal. Preparing the food, properly reheating it, making sure everything’s up to snuff, serving the meal … set up tables with place mats and centerpieces. We don’t have time to sit down, so we also have this volunteer group called ‘minglers.’”
The minglers’ job, she explained, is to learn about the neighbors and determine if they have any needs which GROW Living Stones may be able to address. Each mingler is assigned to a specific location, and often a specific table, so that they get to know the neighbors over time and build trust.
GROW Living Stones’ volunteer base has grown to over 100, including individuals, groups, like the Mt. Lebanon High School girls basketball team, and families. When kids attend the meals with their parents, they’re often put to work as food runners.
“Children don’t realize that they have so much and some people have so little. So parents bring their kids to teach them,” said Bell. “… It’s a good learning experience.”
Livingston added, “We always ask who has a birthday this month … We sing Happy Birthday and give each person a cake with a little candle in it, and then they get to go through the line first. This one little boy, Caleb, he’s convinced now he can sing Happy Birthday. So he comes on up. Starts off strong, then you get, ‘happy, happy, happy birthday! Happy happy…’ And we all help him close off the song.”
Before COVID, GROW Living Stones would often serve 80 to 100 people hot meals on a Sunday. In fact, they estimate that they had cumulatively served somewhere around 27,000 meals before March, 2020. During COVID, they stuck to their plan—hosting meals at 4:30 in the same locations—but they used the locations’ parking lots.
“It was still a buffet, if you will,” said Livingston. “It was, ‘OK, your trunk has the main meal, your trunk has the vegetables, your trunk has the dessert, your trunk has the salad.’ So they could still go through, and we still hung out in the parking lots with them and mingled the best we could. Sometimes it was pretty cold out.”
In Fall 2020, GROW Living Stones started their partnership with the North Way Christian Community Church in Dormont and began working with them to make the space fit their needs. It just so happened that, by the time the space was ready, the CDC COVID guidelines had loosened enough that they were able to host their first indoor sit-down meal since the start of COVID to 50 neighbors at the new Dormont location on May 16, 2021.
Livingston, who retired from her career in telematics at Verizon in 2019 so that she could focus on Living Stones’ growth goals, was dismayed when COVID forced a temporary pause on their plans. But they made the most of that time, launching their questionnaire and collecting information from minglers on their neighbors’ needs. Now, she’s happy to report, “expansion has been steady Eddie.”
At the Sunday, August 15, meal in Dormont, a doctor, two nurses and a physician assistant volunteered to perform free health screenings. This included blood pressure tests, private consultations and medication reviews.
“The doctor said, ‘Let’s talk to them … see what’s the low-hanging fruit.’ Do neighbors say, ‘I have five prescriptions, but I can only afford three? So I don’t take two of them?’ If so, that’s an issue, and we can help,” said Livingston.
They plan to continue offering health assessments as pop-up events at meals. Other pop-ups include book and clothing sales, movie nights, and they hope to add musical entertainment.
Under the umbrella of health needs, GROW Living Stones is also offering services that address hygiene. On Monday, August 16, they started offering free haircuts at their Dormont location, and they will continue the program there on the third Monday of every month from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
“We had a great turnout in August. Haircuts every 15 minutes!” said Livingston. “One neighbor left saying he hoped to get a job now. Sure enough, he did! He was so happy when we saw him at our meals.”
The final need that GROW Living Stones would like to address for their neighbors is dental care, and they’re hoping to roll out a free dental clinic in the next couple of months.
“There’s a great book called Helping Without Hurting, and that’s exactly what we try to do,” said Livingston. “If Bub needs money, sure I can keep giving her $20 a week, but what is she doing, you know? We’re trying to help Bub be successful tomorrow without needing that $20. We’re addressing the cause of the need.”