A volunteer called out, "Let's make it happen," and an unusual assembly line jumped into action in a small ranch house in Clayton, Missouri.
Two people opened cans and refilled large aluminum trays of food laid out on the dining room table. A handful of others stationed themselves around the table and scooped rice, beans, chicken and lettuce into restaurant-grade paper bowls. In a narrow hallway, two women spooned salsa into plastic containers. The taco salad meals migrated to boxes in the living room, where helpers added water bottles, desserts and disposable cutlery.
Each box was adorned with a handmade "Welcome to St. Louis" drawing before being taped up and sorted by delivery location. Later, a few volunteers drove to three local hotels where evacuees from Afghanistan are residing while they wait for housing.
Riz Khan, 55, and his wife, Farah Alam, 50, organize and oversee this operation out of their home. They are part of a local grassroots effort to show the people resettling in St. Louis that they are wanted and welcome -- a goal shared by groups like Welcome Neighbor STL and House of Goods.
Khan and Alam started this specific project in partnership with the International Institute of St. Louis a month ago. But the couple's desire to help their local community started much earlier, in 2013, when they launched a nonprofit for kids in need called the Little Angels Foundation.
Their mission to redirect excess food to those who need it took off during the pandemic. In the spring of 2020, they began cooking dozens of meals and distributing them to the homeless.
"All my free time was spent packing food into bags," Alam laughed.
The effort eventually attracted corporate sponsors like Starbucks and Panera. People are drawn to the cause, and to Khan's relentlessly upbeat energy.
"Our vision was to bring people together -- Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs," Khan said. That's what makes their weekend meal assembly line unique: It's a mix of people from various backgrounds and all walks of life, ranging in age from the couple's 13-year-old daughter to retired business leaders.
When I went to observe their work, my husband and daughter came along and were drawn into the effort. Our kids decided they wanted to go back on the weekends to continue to pitch in. The desire to be a part of something, to feel like we are doing good for others, transcends age, ethnicity and religion.
People like Khan and Alam have created an opportunity for others to give -- in whatever capacity they can.
Khan immigrated to St. Louis from India in 2005, when his wife was accepted into Washington University's MBA program. He worked in marketing and she works in corporate finance. He suffered a major heart attack in his early 40s and lost his job 2 1/2 years ago. But these setbacks allowed him to find his true mission: providing direct assistance to those in need.
He documents and coordinates their efforts on LinkedIn, Facebook, WhatsApp and NextDoor. Strangers will drop off welcome signs made by their children at their doorstep. All the cooking is done by volunteers, and all supplies are donated.
The Afghans staying temporarily in the hotels rely on grocery store gift cards to buy food, and use kitchenettes to prepare their own meals. (The International Institute, which has helped resettle around 500 Afghans over the past year, has given out $80,000 in donated gift cards.) Khan is always part of the meal delivery team, which drops off between 100 to 150 meals at a time. The Afghan families insist that he stay for a cup of tea in the hotel lobby.
One man told him that he had a construction business in Afghanistan, but fled with nothing. Khan is reaching out to his professional contacts to help find job opportunities.
His nonprofit's work is about more than just handing out hot, home-cooked meals. After nearly two years of isolation, people are hungry for connection.
That's what he aims to deliver.