Chartered March 17, 1968
It’s almost 5:45 on Monday morning when I pull into the parking lot of Saint Martin’s Catholic Church in Gaithersburg. There are usually 50 or more people waiting for me outside the church annex. Some get in line as early as 4:30! They come in one at a time and I hand them a numbered ticket. They come back after 10:00 A.M. to receive their bags of groceries. The reason for the delay is that it takes time to make up the bags and organize all of the donations. Also, we do not want to interfere with parking for the 9:00 A.M. church mass. The only restrictions on the food distribution are that the recipients must be at least eighteen years old and each family can only receive one ticket.
We usually have about 30 volunteers to help each Monday morning, including those who pick up food donations from various stores and two or three volunteers who work on a rotating basis to help stock the bread and rolls on the shelves between 6 and 7 A.M., before they go to work. Two major activities of the pantry include shelving the donated canned and packaged food that we received from other Catholic churches, organizations and individuals, and making up the bags of groceries for distribution. It usually takes three or more volunteers to shelve the donated food, and two volunteers to make up the bags of groceries. The bags are made up by manually moving them down a roller conveyor and removing items from the shelves and placing them in the bags. The bags include such things as canned tuna, vegetables, baked beans, soup, fruit, various pasta, macaroni and cheese, rice or beans, and cereal. Each bag weighs about 20 pounds. Five or six volunteers package unwrapped bread and various desserts, which are donated in bulk. When fresh vegetables are available, they too must be packaged. Sometimes a farmer's market gives us potato, chicken, or shrimp salad and occasionally milk, which all have been kept refrigerated. We usually give them out in the containers they come in. We do not give out any out-of-date food or dented cans.
At 10:00 A.M., we open the door and people come in according to the number they have been given, starting with one. Most of the people are women of various ages. Many come in with one or two children. Each person must sign in, indicate their city residence, how many in their family and whether they have been at the pantry before. Then we give each of them a bag of groceries. We call the people our "clients" and we treat them just like we treat each other. We do not look down on them because they are needy. We never give them anything with the attitude: "Oh well, it is good enough for the poor people."
Last year we gave out about 170 bags of groceries each week, but recently we have been giving out 225 or more bags. This usually includes two or three special bags for vegetarians, and sometimes as many as three bags for the homeless. The homeless bags contain items that do not need to be heated. It is very hard to predict the number of bags that will be needed from week to week.
Despite their apparent plight, our clients are usually smiling and joking with us. Some of them have to wait in line for an hour or more. In addition to the bags of groceries, they each can take two or more loaves of bread, plus rolls and muffins. They can also take two or more desserts, including cakes, donuts or pies. We do not include candy since we are encouraged to only include nutritious food in each of the bags. However, some of us give the parents of the little kids candy when we have it, and when the temperature is warm we give the parents of the children ice pops. It is a struggle for our clients to carry everything. Most have cars, but a few must rely on public transportation. I remember a very cold winter day last year when a young woman came through the line with a toddler in tow and was trying to carry her many packages. I asked if I could help her to her car. She told me that she had to ride the bus! You have to really need food to endure this hardship.
We usually have four or five young men and women with autism to help us prepare the empty bags for the groceries. This requires them to put two plastic bags around a brown paper bag. The main purpose of having them help us is to give them an outing and a sense of accomplishment. Most of the young people talk to themselves as they are working. Some occasionally wave their arms and one young man often walks around nodding his head and talking to himself. I really admire those who work with these kids every day because I get so depressed when I am around them for just a few minutes. Nevertheless, I have a great amount of compassion for the young people.
Now there are people who like to say that many come to the pantry just to get free food. I agree that some of our clients do not need the food they get, but I know from the demeanor of our clients that those people are in the minority. Most of our clients truly need the food they get, especially those who must rely on public transportation to get to Saint Martin's. I would rather try to provide food to all of those who need it, than to try to weed out those who don't.
To summarize our activities: We give out numbered tickets starting at 5:45 A.M. and stop at 11:30 A.M. We distribute food starting at 10:00 A.M. and stop when we have served everyone with tickets, usually between twelve and twelve-thirty. The pantry operates every Monday morning throughout the year with three exceptions. When Christmas and New Year's day fall on a Monday, we open on Tuesday. If we experience a heavy snow storm and the staff and clients cannot make it into the pantry, we do not have pantry activities for that week.
My volunteer work at the pantry has been very satisfying for me. I feel that I am doing some good for the poor as Jesus encouraged us to do, and I greatly enjoy the friendship and comradely of the other volunteers, Seeing our clients come through the line each Monday morning, I think "there but for the grace of God, go I," and I realize how very blessed I am.
October 25, 2009