Mary's Place has a shelter for homeless families ready to open in Madrona, but can't without volunteers.

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I picked a plate from the stack and turned it over.

Fine china.

“No paper plates at this place,” Pat Sobeck said with a wink.

That one detail told me a lot about Sobeck and the other folks at Queen Anne Lutheran Church — one of the 14 Seattle congregations that have cooked meals and housed homeless families from the Mary’s Place day shelter, for a week or two at a time, since last summer.

On this night, four women and eight children ranging in age from 11 months to 17 years are climbing around on the blowup beds in the church basement and settling in for the second night of what will be a two-week stay.

In the kitchen, Sallie Wilson, 66, and Gretchen Davis, 47, are making dinner. It’s comfort food: Pot roast with potatoes and carrots. Macaroni and cheese. Brownies for dessert.

“I really think there are times in our lives when we need a leg up,” said Davis, who works at the University of Washington.

“I like cooking,” she said, “and I get to do something, to feed and nurture someone else with food.”

Across the work table, Wilson, who just retired from the furniture business, nodded.

“I hate to see mothers and children on the street,” she said. “I always think, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ “

Wilson’s son has mental illness and preferred to be on the street until not that long ago.

“What can you do?” she said, then paused. “But this. This is a program I can understand.”

What none of us can grasp is why it’s been a struggle for Mary’s Place to find more volunteers to cook dinner, spend the night and serve breakfast to 14 women and children at its new shelter at Madrona Grace Presbyterian Church.

The Madrona church has renovated its basement into a family shelter called Julia’s Place, adding 14 much-needed beds for Mary’s Place families.

But Julia’s Place can’t open until 13 groups have committed to help out for one week, four times a year.

“We could send people there tonight if we just had the people to come along beside us,” said Marty Hartman, executive director of Mary’s Place. “Instead, they’re sitting in tents, in cars.”

One woman spent three nights with her children in an emergency-room waiting area.

“As long as the kids were quiet,” she told a Mary’s Place staffer, “nobody notices.”

And when we do notice, well, we’re not sure what to do. Donate food? Write a check?

This is a chance to do something more, to engage with homeless families in a meaningful way.

You cook, which is the epitome of caring and nurturing. You serve. And you can spend time with the families and get to know them over food, over homework. Like the people that we all are.

“A book group, a women’s group. It doesn’t have to be a church group,” said Liz McDaniel, the family services coordinator for Mary’s Place. “We’ll train you; we’ll be the support people, and we’ll provide the beds. You just need to cook and stay the night.”

Karen Prochnau, 56, was staying overnight with the families for the second time at the Queen Anne church.

“I wanted to do something with people that was of service,” she said. “Not sitting in a committee meeting … I wanted to have direct contact with people in a more personal way.”

She is inspired by how the mothers hold it together.

“They’re working so hard,” she said. “We like to think of moms as multitaskers, but these women take it up to an incredible degree.”

One mother told me of making tens of calls seeking shelter for herself and her three kids after she fled her home and her alcoholic husband. Her family’s goodwill lasted only a little while.

“You have to adjust,” she said. “We’re just trying to keep it as normal as possible.”

A home-cooked meal feels normal, she said. So does spending time with the same families, week after week. The kids are all friends.

So are the people who cooked and listened and spent the night.

“I drive away exhausted,” Prochnau said of her time there. “But with a huge smile on my face.”

To volunteer, call Mary’s Place at 206-621-8474 and ask for Liz McDaniel.

“If you can cook a meal for your family,” Wilson said, “you can do this.”

Nicole Brodeur’s column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or nbrodeur@seattletimes.com.

Nice job on the pot roast, Sallie!