SCHNENECTADY — Lasagna is a family favorite at Ellie von Wellsheim's place in Schenectady.
Von Wellsheim hopes pasta will be a favorite all over the Capital Region on Wednesday: Her volunteer group "Dining for Dollars" will deliver hundreds of lasagna dinners to people and raise money for communities touched by disaster and poverty.
"It comes to your house," von Wellsheim said of plates full of lasagna, salad and garlic bread. "You don't have to get dressed up, you don't have to go out, you don't have to worry about a designated driver."
Team von Wellsheim has been in the kitchen and on the roads since 2007. Von Wellsheim needed a way to help new friends in New Orleans who were recovering from devastation caused by 2005's Hurricane Katrina.
"I had gone down to New Orleans two months after Katrina and I worked in some schools," von Wellsheim said. "When I left, I said, 'What can we do for you?' The overwhelming message I got from people was, 'Please don't forget us. Please keep helping us.' And of course, they needed everything."
Back home in Schenectady, von Wellsheim and a friend brainstormed ideas. They settled on a holiday-time plan; they believed people are often exhausted from December parties, shopping and decorating. "Dining for Dollars" gave them a night off from cooking, and a doorbell ring that announced supper's arrival.
The idea picked up support. This year's 11th annual lasagna run is sponsored by the Unitarian Society of Schenectady's Social Action Committee.
The dinners are delivered in 11 zip code areas of the Capital Region: 12301, 12302, 12303, 12304, 12305, 12306, 12308, 12309, 12325, 12148 and 12866 (Saratoga Springs). Each plate is served with a pre-addressed envelope, and people can choose the amount of money they want to contribute.
"We get the full range," von Wellsheim said. "We've had people give us $1,000, we've had people give us $5. It's whatever you feel comfortable with. Whatever it means to you."
In 2016, 50 volunteers delivered more than 560 dinners in the Schenectady and Saratoga areas - all between 5 and 6 p.m. - and raised $10,000.
- Puerto Rico relief: Lasagna money helps communities in Puerto Rico rebuild after Hurricane Maria.
- The Mooncatcher Project: Funds help buy sanitary products for young girls in Africa, girls who would have to temporarily leave school without them.
- Gulf Coast relief: von Wellsheim has led 16 volunteer relief trips to New Orleans. Gutting buildings was job one - rebuilding structures was job two.
"We continue to help New Orleans because of what that person said to me - 'Don't forget us,'" von Wellsheim said. "We try really hard not to."
So far, 350 people have signed up for next week's lasagna party. Lasagna lovers are asked to sign up online.
"The amount of meals we have made has grown," she said. "Sometimes, the amount of money does not grow. People tend to give more when there's a disaster that's happening right now.
Von Wellsheim believes recent disasters - Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in August, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September - may spur more giving.
The team will begin cooking Tuesday at the Universalist Society - vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free lasagna - and return Wednesday morning to bake bread and make salads. Foods are donated by local supermarkets, and some donations are earmarked to buy groceries.
Bags of coffee and pastries are also part of the dinner deal.
"It takes about 50 people to pull this off," von Wellsheim said. "That includes the guy who does our computer work and the woman who figures out all the routes. I think that's the hardest job."