Flames shot from a grill July 26 as Carl Stewart flipped dozens of sizzling hamburgers and hot dogs.
A few hours later, the picnic fare prepared by Stewart with the help of family and friends was being enjoyed by hungry clients of Opportunity House in Reading.
“The clients in here are so wonderful,” Carl’s brother Mike Stewart said. “They help in any way.”
Mike and his wife, Tracy, of Exeter Township joined with others to help Carl throw an annual cookout for residents of the shelter on North Second Street in Reading. This is their 15th year.
The Stewart family and friends also prepare and serve meals at the shelter on the fourth Sunday of every month and yearly on Christmas Eve.
“These are the two reasons I do this — my son and wife,” Carl Stewart said, pointing to photos of his late wife, Cindy, who died Oct. 14, and their son, Jason, who was killed January 23, 2004, during a murder-suicide.
Investigators at the time said Richard Jenks, 63, shot his estranged wife, Kathleen A. Jenks, 47, and his daughter, Kimberly H. Jenks, 18, and her boyfriend, Jason A. Stewart, 24, before turning the gun on himself.
Jason had gone through a rough patch early in his 20s, and his parents suggested he turn to a local shelter for help, Carl said. He had gotten his life back on track, was in a steady relationship and planning the future when he was killed.
Carl and Cindy never knew if Opportunity House had helped their son, but they knew the shelter helped thousands of others and wanted to be a small part of that.
“It was my wife’s idea,” Carl said. “For stress relief, she would make muffins. I am talking six, seven, eight dozen, so we would bring them in here.”
Baking muffins for the clients soon turned to cooking and serving dinners, and the couple enlisted some help.
“Without all these people, I could not do this,” Carl said, waving to his family and friends.
In past years, the Stewart crew would set up grills on the sidewalk outside Opportunity House and host a genuine cookout for the residents. With guidelines in place this year for helping prevent the spread of the coronavirus, they prepared the food at home and let staff serve it.
“We do this for the enjoyment of the people at Opportunity House,” Carl said. “After losing Cindy, it is more important to me now than ever.”