Gene Mueller's Higher Life: George Neureuther of "The Gathering"

CREATED Oct 4, 2012

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Gene Mueller - It's one of the most popular morning eateries in Milwaukee--on a good day, they'll serve a couple of hundred “guests”, some who'll walk--walk, mind you, more than a mile to get there.

It's 'The Gathering”, housed in the basement of a church near the Marquette campus, serving the poor, the homeless and others down on their luck. Coordinator George Neureuther calls the shots, as he has the past five years.

“It’s something I just really enjoy,” says Neureuther. “My belief is that it’s all about finding your happiness, and for me, it’s really helping out the poor people who are suffering and to do something positive for them.”

It's something he's been doing for 15 years. He was in California for a while but “The Gathering” puts him closer to his native Hubertus.

“Our average guest, they walk here for the most part – 15 to 20 blocks would be about the average walk that they do. What’s so great about our guests is they’re very appreciative of what they receive. And they look out for each other and actually for all of us.

Notice he calls those he feeds "guests"--people who may have lost a lot, but George makes sure they keep their dignity...a crowd he says is getting younger amid the continuing economic downturn.

“Absolutely, there are so many people, especially at a time like this with the economy so bad, that they are one check away from literally being on the street themselves.”

Some guests pay it forward by volunteering themselves. Then there are the outside help, coming from area churches, local businesses and from nearby Marquette...George says any preconceptions change by the time their shifts end.

“What they realize is that there’s really no difference between our guests and themselves, except that they are a little bit more down on their luck and having more problems than the average person. And also, they just have a really good feeling when they leave helping other people. And they feel really good about our guests.”

And, some realize just how close they are to being on the other side of the serving line.

“During the weekday, at least 50% of our volunteers are guest volunteers – people that use our services that want to say “thank you” back to us, that they’re very grateful for what they get and receive. They’re the ones who usually do the hard work – doing the dishes, scrubbing the pots and pans and things like that.”

“The Gathering” accepts no federal or state money. Corporations, foundations and individuals pay most of the freight, allowing George to run things without government strings attached. Food comes from Hunger Task Force, Feeding America, Roundy's, McDonalds and Starbucks, among others.

It's up to George to serve up the intangibles...the respect for his guests, keeping things fun for both them and his volunteers.

Gene: “Feel like you’re making a difference?”

George: “At times I do feel like I do make a little bit of a difference. If we all just chip in a little bit…we all make a little bit of a difference, then this world will be a lot better.”

Gene: “Is that spiritual, religious…?”

George: “Partially spiritual, but having great parents and great family that supports me and is there for me.”

As for those who don't use the gathering, those who don't volunteer, those who may drive by his “guests”, when they see them on the street and pass judgment? What does George say?

“I would ask them to come down here and volunteer, and to just visit with our guests and get to know them. You would really get a better understanding of the dilemma and the problems and issues our guests have and why they’re suffering. It’s not because they want to? It’s because they’ve just been down on their luck and things happen.”

Gene: “How long are you going to be here and what’s next?”

George: “Well hopefully I’ll be here ‘til…as one of my workers said when the doors open and there is nobody here to feed. So I’d love to be here always.”

Gene: “That day is coming?”

George: “No, not in the near future. I can tell you that right now. It’s here for a long time.”