Pandemic All-Star: Michael Billingsley, Volunteer, Plainfield Community Suppers | Food + Drink Features | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Pandemic All-Star: Michael Billingsley, Volunteer, Plainfield Community Suppers


Published June 9, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated June 9, 2021 at 4:55 p.m.

Michael Billingsley, Volunteer, Plainfield Community Suppers - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-brodeur
  • Michael Billingsley, Volunteer, Plainfield Community Suppers

Before the first case of the coronavirus was identified in the United States, in early January 2020, Michael Billingsley and other members of the Plainfield Hazard Mitigation Committee started studying the coronavirus pandemic in China.

Though the group is typically concerned with more commonplace issues, such as flooding, the committee "looks ahead at things that could happen and does everything possible to keep impact low," Billingsley said. "We're very proactive and don't want to expose people to danger."

By February, the mitigation committee was "writing to people [in local government] to try to get them to form a public health response," Billingsley said.

In March 2020, it became clear that an upcoming event — the Plainfield Community Supper — could be a risky occasion. The sit-down meal for about 80 people, hosted each month by a different local group, normally convened at the Grace United Methodist Church in the center of town.

"I immediately went to a different model," said Billingsley, 75, "and contacted my volunteers and said, 'Who's willing to work with masks and gloves on?'"

The new model is a takeout meal of soup, bread and dessert; it's available for pickup at the church on the fourth Tuesday of the month. The food is primarily for Plainfield residents — but everyone's welcome.

"If somebody pulled up in a Rolls-Royce, I would give them soup," Billingsley said. 

At the meal's first iteration in March 2020, soup was donated by Joe's Kitchen at Screamin' Ridge Farm in Montpelier, and bread was courtesy of Red Hen Baking in Middlesex. Each month since, soup for the suppers is purchased from Joe's Kitchen with money donated by community members; Red Hen continues to donate the bread.

"People are always giving us money to do this," Billingsley said, adding that it costs about $325 for 120 or so meals.

The dessert course includes apples and a gluten-free option made by longtime Plainfield resident Helen Rabin.

"She's a very supportive and important component of this whole thing," Billingsley said.

Andrea Stefani, 70, used similar words to describe Billingsley's involvement with the whole affair. The retired language and science teacher has lived in Plainfield for 37 years.

"Michael rose up to the challenge," Stefani said, noting that his effort ranges from organizing volunteers to fundraising to picking up the soup.

"It's a really wonderful, beautiful gesture," she continued, "and I just admire the persistence and the commitment he put into it."

Billingsley, who grew up in Northfield, taught media arts at local colleges; he's also a musician and a sound engineer/record producer. At his home in Plainfield, he raises chickens and goats.

Billingsley built an expansion in the church doorway that serves as a counter from which people retrieve their meals between 6 and 7 p.m. on the fourth Tuesdays. Folks sometimes pick up food for their neighbors or others who can't get to the church. Leftover meals are donated to the Onion River Food Shelf in Marshfield.

"I've had people say they were very thankful," Billingsley said. "We are enough of a constant that it reassures people, and they've told me that. And it gets people out of the house. Just to get out of the house and pick up food is a big deal for some people."

The community suppers will stop during the summer, when people cherish warm-weather evenings and late sunsets. The extended daylight gives people time to work in their gardens and tackle household projects.

"Summer evenings are so precious to people," Billingsley said.

The Plainfield Hazard Mitigation Committee has been disbanded, but the community suppers will resume in the fall. Although Billingsley doesn't know yet what form they'll take, he's hopeful they'll be indoors — maybe in smaller groups.

Editor note: To choose Vermont's Pandemic All-Stars, we surveyed our readers on the people, places and programs that kept them going — and going — during the COVID-19 pandemic. Space limitations prevented us from recognizing every pick worthy of public praise.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Proactive and Persistent"