On a recent weekday, guests bundled in layers make their way down a long table in the community room at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in downtown Newport. Volunteers wear smiles, aprons and gloves as they serve homemade, hot food. Chicken pot pie, a crowd pleaser (with a vegetarian option,) mashed potatoes, a green salad, soup and Rice Krispy treats with a chocolate drizzle on top for dessert.

The visitors are here for Lunch and Learn, an MLK Center community program that features a hot meal and presentation the first and third Wednesdays each month. This week’s presentation topic is balance, physical equilibrium. 

Melanie Saunders is one of the people running the event. She’s community programs coordinator at the MLK Center.

Melanie Saunders: The Martin Luther King Center has three pillars, like we like to say: hunger services, education programs and community programs. Lunch and Learn is part of our community programs that serve specifically older adults and seniors.

Last year the organization celebrated its centennial. The center began as the Newport Community Center in 1922 but was renamed in 1968 in honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. During the centennial year, the staff embarked on a capital campaign and raised 7-point-5 million dollars to expand the center’s footprint to 33-hundred square feet and double the size of its food pantry. Executive Director Heather Hole Strout says the center must expand to meet the growing needs in the Newport community. According to U.S. Census figures, 15.5 percent of Newport residents live in poverty. At the MLK Center, eighty-two percent of their clients earn less than $17,000 a year; almost all of them make less than $34,000 annually. Here’s Strout.

Heather Hole Strout: Over Thanksgiving we served 35 percent more people than we served in 2021. Our food distributed over the holidays, that number was over 2,000 people.

Due to the ongoing construction, the center had limited storage for Thanksgiving and holiday meals, so, this year, Strout says, they gave out gift cards for groceries totaling about $70,000. 

Saunders says there are multiple factors creating the increased need. Rising food and housing costs are among the most significant. The winter months have brought additional expenses and challenges, like heating and finding shelter.

Saunders: You have a lot of families who are working two or three jobs, and probably don’t qualify for things like SNAP, or maybe their immigration status is such that they couldn’t ever qualify for programs like that. We work with many of those families that fall in that gap.

The expansion project is expected to be finished by the end of this year. For now, the center relies on other organizations in the community for space, like St. Paul’s church, this year’s host for the center’s breakfast and Lunch and Learn programs. A temporary food pantry is on Marcus Wheatland Boulevard across the street from the center. 

All the regular programs are open for the Martin Luther King, Jr. federal holiday, and Salve Regina students are volunteering and offering coffee and muffins during the food pantry hours from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. This year the staff at the center are hosting a warmth drive for people to donate gloves, blankets, scarves, and other winter items. Here again is community programs coordinator Melanie Saunders.

Saunders: Dr. King was a big advocate for equality, as we know. He was a big advocate for housing rights and fair and good housing for everyone. We’re doing this warmth drive to draw attention to how many people are still sleeping outside, even during the coldest months of the year. 

Staying open on the MLK holiday? That’s a change Heather Hole Strout initiated when she became executive director four and a half years ago. Employees can take a flexible holiday at a later date, in keeping with the center’s values. Strout believes working and offering services on the holiday is an important reminder that Dr. King’s legacy informs every aspect of the center’s work. 


For more information, contact the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center at (401) 846-4828. Visit the website at mlkccenter.org