Thank You, Carolyn!

Posted: Saturday, September 1, 2007 at 12:00 am
By: Doug Lund
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One of Sioux Falls most popular eating establishments just won’t be the same after next February.
Carolyn Downs, executive director of “The Banquet” for the past 20 years, is retiring.
 
Keloland’s Lou Raguse did a nice story on her the other day but it’s hard to sum up the career of a person like Carolyn in a minute and a half..so let me add a few more personal observations.
 
I met Carolyn Downs for an interview shortly after she took the helm at the Banquet.
My first thought was..she’s too nice for a job like this. Dealing with a few drunken winos banging on the Banquet door for breakfast will wipe that smile off her face.
 
Carolyn DownsI was wrong, of course.
 
She has proven me wrong about a lot of things in the dozens of interviews that I’ve done with her since 1987.
I once asked her about those people who lined up outside The Banquet each day for free meals. How can they ever pick themselves out of the gutter if they keep getting stuff handed to them through the generosity of others? You know..the old saying, “give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, TEACH  a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.”
 
Carolyn would always respond with her trademark smile and gentle voice saying, “Doug, you know we’re not here to change the world..but to give those who are hungry in our little part of it something good to eat. And when they’re here they’ll be treated with dignity, respect and love. It’s probably the only time and place they’ll get it.”
“Who knows, she adds, that may be all the incentive some of them need to try improve their lot in life” 
“You’ll have to come down here sometime, Doug, and see how many children we feed each day.”
“You can’t say they’re responsible for their situation, now can you?”
 
A few years ago, I did go and see for myself when a group of Keloland employees volunteered to serve breakfast at The Banquet.
Sure enough, there were several kids among those who showed up on that chilly morning for hot pancakes and sausages.
It broke my heart to see but it sure made me glad to know that The Banquet, Carolyn Downs and all the volunteers are there for them every day.
And it’s not only food. Carolyn is always organizing some kind of charity drive for her “clients”..from donations of warm clothing..or new school supplies…to toiletry kits for improved hygiene.
 
Before each meal, flowers are placed on the banquet tables and Carolyn leads the volunteers in a hand-holding prayer followed by her request that everyone spend a little time with the dinner guests and listen to what they have to say.
 
When there were rumors going around that The Banquet might be closing,  I was immediately on the phone to Carolyn for the inside scoop.. When the camera was rolling for our interview, it was the first time I’d ever seen here nervous or in doubt.
She has always had a way of using her smile and gentle persona to get what she needs for the banquet..from food and supplies to volunteers. People just can’t say no to her and she wouldn’t take no for an answer from them if they did.
But she was going to need a lot of answered prayers, a lot of money and a lot of people saying yes if she was to pull off a plan..not to close..but to move The Banquet several blocks away to a bigger building to handle the growing needs of the homeless and needy.
 
She need not have worried, the new Banquet at 8th and Indiana has been a big success with nearly 140 thousand of her special “guests” stopping by for dinner in the last year.
 
In our last interview for KELO, we talked about how Sioux Falls was changing…diversifying. I mentioned my concern that so many of our new residents don’t speak the language, don’t have jobs and wind up in trouble or on the streets.
 
“Come on, Doug. Is it really that big a problem?” Carolyn said with a disarming smile.
“I think there is room for us all, Don’t you?”
 
I think I can speak for just about everybody who knows Carolyn Downs that we’re awfully glad the Lord made room for this special angel in our town.

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