If you hear about a good cause in a distant land, you might write a check. If you taste the food, see the art, and hear the music of people needing help, you might dig a little deeper and become a longtime supporter.
That’s an idea behind Room at the Table, a Lexington-based volunteer organization that has raised thousands of dollars in recent years for charities all over the world, as well as some closer to home. Local recipients have included Women of Means, a group in Wellesley that provides medical care to women in homeless shelters.
Room at the Table’s next event, on March 31, will benefit a village in Honduras. On the menu are baleadas, a tortilla with cheese and beans, with or without beef; green rice with tomatillos and cilantro; and chicken and vegetable soup. A salsa instructor will lead a dance lesson, and there will be arts and crafts for children.
“I feel like we live in a very privileged community,’’ said Cheryl Johnson, one of the group’s cofounders. “I wanted my kids to know how lucky they are, and to see the world outside Lexington.’’
Johnson met fellow cofounders Reem Yared and Sharon Lawler several years ago when all three had children at the same elementary school. They discovered they all liked to cook, and wanted to find a way to help others. They sat down for an interview recently in Yared’s home.
“We don’t have thousands of dollars to give,’’ said Yared. “We can cook. That’s how we can make a difference.’’
Their first event, in 2005, benefited an orphanage in Zimbabwe for children who had lost parents to HIV/AIDS. Projects for causes in Ghana, Haiti, and Cambodia followed.
“We try to raise awareness of causes that fly under the radar,’’ said Lawler.
One of those causes was the Sharing Foundation, a Concord-based nonprofit organization that Room at the Table highlighted in an event in 2010.
The dinner raised about $4,500, which was probably the group’s biggest fund-raiser for the year, said Kat MacDonald, the foundation’s treasurer.
The Sharing Foundation, which runs an orphanage and provides medical and educational services for children in Cambodia, was set up by a local pediatrician, and gets many volunteers from the area’s community of parents who have adopted children from the Southeast Asian country.
Room at the Table gave the organization a nice boost, said MacDonald.
“There aren’t a whole lot of avenues where you can find new people who are interested in what you do,’’ she said. “It was huge for us because we have lots of local adoptive parents, but we don’t have times when we really come together.’’
And thanks to that one event in 2010, the foundation found three new educational sponsors, who have helped pay for Cambodian students to attend college.
Pilgrim Congregational Church, a member of the United Church of Christ denomination in Lexington, gave Room at the Table seed money to get started, and the multifaith organization’s volunteers still use space at the church for events.
The three women, who serve as the group’s steering committee, say they strive to make their events multigenerational and family friendly. Lexington High School students can earn community service hours by volunteering with Room at the Table.
“One of our purposes is to educate and empower youth,’’ said Johnson.
With one or two dinners each year, the group has raised about $45,000. Each event typically raises $3,000 to $4,000, said Johnson, for an investment of about $250 for supplies and other expenses. To keep costs low, the organizers often serve only water with meals (unless they do a fruit smoothie station), and try to keep the food authentic but simple, said Johnson.
Yared said one of the biggest challenges is logistical, making the meals in tight quarters. They have to scale recipes up to feed 120 or more while keeping the food nutritious and not too expensive, she said, which means a lot of rice and beans.
“You have to pick something that will be appealing but authentic,’’ said Yared.
The group asks participants to make a donation equivalent to what they would have paid for a night out, a target that is intentionally broad, she said.
“If the family goes out for dinner at McDonald’s, they are welcome to give this amount,’’ Yared said in an e-mail after the interview. “If they go out for dinner at L’Espalier, then we would appreciate an equivalent donation. This might keep our fund-raising modest but our community participation high . . . We do not offer a caviar dinner while fund-raising for starving children.’’
The March 31 event is being planned in conjunction with the Hancock Church, another UCC congregation in Lexington, which has been working with Sustainable Harvest International, the dinner’s beneficiary. Sustainable Harvest seeks to teach sustainable agriculture methods to Central American farmers. The idea is to increase crop production while also protecting the region’s tropical forests.
For Yared, the types of struggles that exist around the world have a personal familiarity. In Lebanon, where she is from, her parents’ home was burned and looted during widespread conflict in the mid-1980s.
“I understand the devastation,’’ said Yared.
But she hopes teaching the community about those in need through their food and culture will lead to a lasting commitment. “Sharing a dinner is a powerful experience,’’ she said.