Free food and services were offered to the homeless Sept. 24, but volunteers were more focused on providing hope.

Free food and services were offered to the homeless Sept. 24, but volunteers were more focused on providing hope.

Volunteers from Gahanna's Peace Lutheran Church, Stonybrook United Methodist Church and others served about 1,000 people during an annual picnic at Veterans Memorial in downtown Columbus.

The idea for the event came during a 2004 ice storm, said Chris Broas, a member of Peace Lutheran Church's HOPE team, which covers homeless, outreach, programs and events.

She didn't have electricity for seven days, she said, and when she looked in a local newspaper, she saw a picture of a homeless man sitting in the frigid temperatures with his dog.

"I decided I had nothing to complain about," Broas said. "It brought me back to humbleness and gratitude for what I had. I and a couple people had a passion to do something for the less fortunate. It started with helping people living under Columbus viaducts, bridges and in the woods."

Since then, the outreach ministry has developed into the Picnic of HOPE, a day that provides free food, clothing, health screenings, haircuts, flu shots and small worship services to those in need.

Peace Lutheran Church pastor Kai Nilsen said the church connected with Veterans Memorial two years ago.

"It gave us access to people most in need of the services," he said. "We have over 100 volunteers who serve food, cut hair and wash feet. It has been catalytic for our community and how we understand who we are. It's a tangible thing to rally around."

Sharon Blunt, who operates the free store at Stonybrook United Methodist Church, participated for the fourth year.

"We take coats, blankets, shoes and clothing," she said. "Last year, we had around 750 people, and we had coats for most of them and shoes for half of them. This year, we took more shoes."

The event is about more than filling stomachs and giving out clothing, though, Broas said.

"When we visited the homeless camps, it was the loneliness of spirit that struck me," she said. "They crave human companionship."

With the recession, more focus has been on homelessness, Broas said.

"Suddenly, there's the awareness of you're not alone in this," she said.

When the free store opened at Stonybrook four years ago, it served 75 local families. Currently, 220 families are seeking assistance.

With 1,000 served at Picnic of HOPE, volunteers are exhausted but they know they've made a difference, Broas said.

"There's a fire that grabs your spirit and you don't want to let go," she said. "Our goal is to live and preach the gospel by saying as few words as possible. We work to remind folks that no matter what, we are all loved by God."

For Blunt, the best part of Picnic for HOPE is singing hymns with the attendees during small worship services.

"The guys sing 'Amazing Grace' like it's truly amazing grace," she said.

"It's a symbol of God's love we're giving these people," Blunt said. "They're grateful for it, and we're happy to be doing it."

In addition to Peace Lutheran Church, Stonybrook United Methodist Church and Veterans Memorial, 2011 sponsors include The Allen Foundation, Cintas, Bankshot Billiards, Whitehall United Methodist Church, Dairy Queen of Gahanna, Whit's Frozen Custard of Gahanna, Nth Degree Bus Service, Fun'L Frenzy, Cheryl's Cookies, Midwest Fresh, Ohio State University, Mount Carmel, One Sight/Pearl Vision, Pass the Peace (with members of the Chad Greenwald Trio), OSU College of Optometry, Sara Lee/Heiner's and Columbus Public Health.