Cedar Rapids woman starts lunch program for victims' families during trials

Daughter's death in 2006 crash helped Pinkston understand loss

Larry and Renee Pinkston stand among artwork by their daughter Michelle Thursday, Sept. 1, 2011 at the New Covenant Bible Church in Cedar Rapids. (Gazette file photo)
Larry and Renee Pinkston stand among artwork by their daughter Michelle Thursday, Sept. 1, 2011 at the New Covenant Bible Church in Cedar Rapids. (Gazette file photo)

Renee Pinkston said she believes when tragic things happen in life the best way to heal and move forward is to help others.

“I remember seeing a Mr. Rogers quote of ‘look for the helpers’ when something bad happens and you’re hurting because there is also good somewhere else or in other people,” Pinkston said last week.

Pinkston understands loss and healing after her 22-year-old daughter Michelle died in a 2006 car crash. Michelle was driving from Ames to Cedar Rapids on Highway 30, near Norway, when she crossed the median into oncoming traffic, hitting a truck and minivan. The driver of the minivan was seriously injured but survived.

Michelle was going to graduate from Iowa State University that next day.

“I don’t know how she lost control - inattentive driving or what … it was just a horrible accident,” she said.

Pinkston said she and her husband have always looked for ways to volunteer but an opportunity to help others who were grieving and going through a stressful time came about a year after Michelle’s death in 2007. She was asked to coordinate volunteers to provide lunches for victims’ families during criminal trials in Linn County. Her pastor, Bob Westfall at New Covenant Bible Church, is on the Horizons advisory board and a victim’s advocate asked for help.

“We (as a church) looked at it as a way to reach out into the community,” Pinkston said.

She and a co-chair have over 80 volunteers in their church meal ministry who takes turns making lunches for the families. The trials can last a week or more, so these lunches save the families an added expense, especially those who travel from out of town, and it also gives the family a relaxed and comfortable break away from the courtroom, she said.


“We take the lunches to the Horizons office and they have a quiet place for them to be together and eat,” Pinkston said.

Pinkston and the other volunteers who provide the lunches never meet the families. They respect their privacy and try not to disturb them. They just drop off the meals and the Horizons staff take it back to the families, she said.

“It is a wonderful partnership between community organizations,” Penny Galvin, victim advocate for Horizons Survivors’ Program, said. “Before and during the trial it is emotionally, physically, and financially draining for family and friends of the victim.”

Galvin shared some comments she has received from family members who went through a trial in Linn County over this last year.

“I can’t believe a complete stranger cares so much about us, to do this every day while we are in trial. They are a blessing,” one family member said.

Another person said “This is so nice that someone in the community provides these lunches during trial. We have a lot of expense coming to the trial and this is one less expense for us. The meals are great.”

Galvin said this partnership with New Covenant is a “wonderful” example of how forming support systems within the community can work. Horizons plans to pursue more of these partnerships in the other 14 counties it serves.

Horizons Survivors’ Program addresses the immediate and long-term needs of families of homicide and vehicular homicide victims.


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Horizons nominated Pinkston and New Covenant Bible Church for two of the Governor’s Volunteer Awards for their dedication and service of this meals program. Pinkston was nominated for her individual contribution of starting and coordinating the program. They received the awards last week, along with 600 other volunteers across the state.

The annual program honors volunteers for their commitment, service and time. The awards recipients are those who have demonstrated “exceptional leadership, creativity, and hard work through their volunteer service,” according to the awards criteria.

Pinkston said she was surprised and honored by the award. Each recipient receives a certificate and has their photo taken with Gov. Terry Branstad, who attends all the regional ceremonies. Pinkston said she’s happy to help with the lunch service and her job has been easy with so many willing volunteers to cook and prepare meals.

“There have been some horrible crimes here and many times family members are coming in from out of town and they only see that about our community, so I hope this is a way we can also show there is kindness.”



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