Attendees partake of Asian cuisine and one another’s company at the Oct. 8 HOPE luncheon. (From left) HOPE team member Jason Denton, Maryville resident Marion Henderson, and Granite City residents Nora Todoroff, Betty Mathias and Mary Tarpoff.
GRANITE CITY — “No one knows what it’s like to lose their spouse until they’ve been there,” says Jason Denton, assistant manager and funeral director of Irwin Chapel Funeral Home and team member of the Helping Others Provide Encouragement (HOPE) program.
For more than six years, the group’s monthly luncheon has served as a welcoming environment for widows and widowers to connect and find solace after loss.
Linda Irwin, co-founder of the program and wife of Irwin Chapel Funeral Home founder Randall Irwin, explains that the inspiration for starting the program came from reading an article in Guideposts Magazine that highlighted a “group of church people that wanted to befriend those that have lost their spouses. (HOPE co-founder and decorator) Merna (Davis) and I were on a plane and wanted to discuss the article and what we could do in that spirit.”
The program also finds its conceptual roots in the former annual Christmas Service of Remembrance held by Irwin Chapel Funeral Home, in which those who lost someone received a small consolation gift.
“Each month is different in theme,” Denton says. “September was all about the Cardinals, with Fredbird making an appearance, and October has an Oriental theme. They never know what they’ll be coming into.”
The theme may change from month to month, but each luncheon begins in the same fashion at 11:30 a.m. Margaret Vaught, retired Granite City schoolteacher and director of HOPE, begins with a warm introduction, honors monthly birthdays with gold dollar gifts, hosts a brief “hot potato” game for one attendee at each table to win a centerpiece designed by Davis and leads in prayer before the first plates are served.
In honoring October’s Asian theme, the luncheon consisted of orange mandarin fresh green salad and stir fry with vegetables over a bed of rice, served by the Sunset Hills Country Club staff. As food and beverages were delivered to the tables, the attendees engaged in lighthearted banter while working on word puzzles printed by Denton.
“It’s awesome to see them smile,” Denton says. “It’s like Christmas time again.”
The attendees can attest to the joy the program provides each month.
“It’s really very lovely,” says Granite City resident and luncheon regular Mary Tarpoff. “You get to get together with your friends, get served and look forward to getting dressed up. It’s really nice to see old friends each month.”
Betty Mathias of Granite City shares Tarpoff’s sentiments.
“It’s all very uplifting, which really helps you get over loss,” she said.
She also expresses gratitude to Irwin Chapel Funeral Home staff for setting up the program.
“The Irwins are very personable,” she said. “Linda and Randy have become personal friends. They subsidize the event and they do a beautiful job. The staff really helps you out, assists you to your table and puts on a wonderful program every time.”
No luncheon would be complete without monthly entertainment. October’s performance was provided by retired history teacher and “living historian” Barbara Kay, returning to the luncheon for the third time. She assumed the character of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” a Titanic survivor and early advocate of women’s rights.
“I mark my calendar every month,” Mathias says. “We get a call a week in advance asking if we plan to attend, so that they can make meal arrangements.”
Granite City resident and regular Nora Todoroff sums up the power and pull of the luncheon: “Once someone comes to one of these, they keep coming back.”
Linda Irwin said she would like to thank the following individuals who help make the luncheons successful and uplifting events: Granite City funeral home General Manager and HOPE team member Mary Collett, funeral assistant and HOPE team member Jackie Logan, Glen Carbon funeral home Manager and HOPE team member Liz Geisler, Granite City and Glen Carbon Building Maintenance Supervisor and HOPE team member Fred Epperson, HOPE team support staff member Judy Propes and HOPE volunteer Lois Glasgow.
The luncheon is the second Thursday of every month from April through December at Sunset Hills Country Club, 2525 Illinois 157 South in Edwardsville. The next luncheon will be Thursday, Nov. 12. Approximately 140 widows and widowers attend at an admission of $14, and anyone who has lost his or her spouse is invited. The Irwin Chapel Funeral Home staff asks participants to contact the Glen Carbon funeral home at (618) 288-9500 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday to make reservations. More information is available at www.irwinchapel.com/_mgxroot/page_10738.php.