Federal Way cook serves up rice, chicken and friendship

Mercedes Porras is the Mirror’s Hometown Hero for May 2023.

Every Saturday morning, Mercedes Porras, along with another dozen or volunteers, gets to cooking hearty plates of food for hungry people in Federal Way.

Porras, who is from Costa Rica, has cooked meals for the Federal Way Community Caregiving Network, a local nonprofit, for 12 years, volunteering her Saturdays to make arroz con pollo, bread pudding, tamales and other dishes.

She doesn’t go off a recipe. Having made three meals a day, every day, for 53 years, Porras knows what she’s doing.

“I like to cook, and I like people,” said Porras, 77. “I enjoy going over there. It’s a lot of fun.”

Porras and her husband married in Costa Rica and lived and worked for years in California. They moved to the area about 15 years ago to be closer to her daughter and grandsons.

Cracking jokes and swapping stories as they bake chickens and stir up rice, the volunteers keep the church’s kitchen lively and loud.

“We all volunteer because we want to help, but what I see every week is (also) a community of people who enjoy getting together and having a meal,” Saturday meal coordinator Aimee Drake said.

Porras “is a confident cook, and she’s really good at directing,” Drake said. “She keeps the kitchen happy and mellow. She’s not stressed. She just keeps her cool, and cooks really flavorful, good food.”

The FWCCN is a group of local churches that has for decades served free hot meals every week — currently Monday nights at the Christian Faith center and Saturday Afternoons at the Church of the Good Shepherd. They run an emergency services program on Tuesdays to help people afford necessities like rent and gas. And they also run community gardens at Truman High School and the Federal Way Senior Center, vegetables from which are distributed to low-income seniors in the community.

The Caregiving Network is a coalition of churches but isn’t tied down to any specific faith. The goal is just to help people in the community, said Linda Murphy, who coordinates the emergency services program.

The organization has been in operation for about 35 years and conducts an annual “Souper Supper” fundraiser at the Christian Faith Center.

The meals are open to anyone, Murphy said, and much of the food is provided through food lifeline — a nonprofit that delivers foods to food banks and meal programs across western Washington.

Along with cooking meals, Porras recruits other volunteers and encourages them, Murphy said, helping grow the program.

The program is still going strong, although they could use a new stove, Porras said with a laugh.

Volunteer Marie Eak said the meals are a relaxed and friendly space that brings in a lot of regulars.

“It’s like a family setting,” Marie Eak said. “We’re comfortable.”

Before the COVID pandemic, they would get up to 40, 50 or 60 people at the meals. That number has declined to about 35 on average now, not counting to-go orders, the volunteers said.

They shifted to handing out lunches earlier during the COVID-19 pandemic, but are now back to in-person meals.

“We had to adapt,” volunteer Mari Hagen said. “But the need is still out there.”

Porras recalled what it was like when she first started cooking at the weekly meals.

“When I started … it was kind of dangerous,” Porras said. “People fighting, (you’d) have to call the police. Now, no. I sit down with them, and I like to hear (their) stories, about what’s going on. … And that helped me to say, ‘Thank you, Lord.’ Because I have almost everything. I have my clean bed, my house. And some people have nothing.”

The Saturday FWCCN lunch is from 1 to 2 p.m. at the Church of the Good Shepherd at 345 S. 312th St. The Monday dinner is served 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the Christian Faith Center at 33645 20th Ave. S.