FROM THE FRONT LINES

Mike Olson had been a volunteer for several years before he joined the Board of the Pantry. With the growing demand for food, the need for social distancing, and several regular volunteers at higher risk needing to stop back, Mike has been managing the Thursday evening distribution during the COVID-19 pandemic. Once the full effect of growing unemployment took hold, he says flexibility was key. “We’ve had to adapt every week,” he says. “As the demand grows, we’ve had a great number of people willing to put themselves at risk to serve.”

Mike is glad we’ve been able to navigate the challenges to continue to serve hundreds of families every week. “It shows me it’s been worth my time and money to help move this organization forward to meet the need in innovative ways. It makes me feel proud and hopeful.” He says every time he volunteers, he understands that he is helping someone meet their most basic needs. “I feel a responsibility to give back, and I hope others feel the same way. At the end of the day, this is such important work.”

Initially, when Diane McKillip began working at the Pantry after the pandemic hit, she stressed about the sheer volume of people needing help. She says the volunteer crews have been cut by 2/3rds in an effort to maintain social distance. “Before we got some systems in place I just kept thinking ‘how long can we keep up this pace?’ But things change every day, so even the systems have to be fluid.” Right now Diane is loading boxes of food into people’s trunks. Wearing a mask has been tough because she knows how vulnerable people feel when they have to ask for help. “I tell them I want them to know I’m smiling under this mask,” she says. “Establishing that trust is so important.” She says she is seeing families she recognizes coming more regularly than they did before. Mostly, she says, she sees gratitude on the faces she greets. People make a point of thanking her.

Diane was thrilled when she was asked to volunteer at this time. “If I didn’t do this, what else would I do? It gives me such a spiritual boost. What an opportunity for us in the community to help! I volunteer with my husband and children. We can’t imagine doing anything else.”

West Suburban Community Pantry typically provides snacks and cereal for Lisle High School students and offers a food pick-up for Thanksgiving, Winter break, and Springbreak. Because of the uncertainty of the pandemic’s effect on school closures, the Spring pick-up, which was open to anyone in need in the District, was much more important according to Jen Zimmerman, Assistant Principal of Student Services. “We know that there are people who may not qualify for in-school food services, but who still struggle to keep their families fed, especially during breaks. Now that things are changing fast, there is an even greater need.”

“These food pick-ups allow us to connect with families so they know that someone is there for them. We can engage with them and connect them with services beyond academics confidentially and without judgment, “Zimmerman says. “When Amy Narot, a Lisle resident, first connected me with the services in the community that could assist our families, I knew this was something we had to do. We can make such an impact on our school community. Having the Pantry as a resource allows us to support our families’ social-emotional and financial needs. We are beyond grateful.”

Bob, a Supportive Housing Case Manager for DuPage PADS, has come to the Pantry to pick up food for his clients the last couple of weeks. He says the people he serves in PADS permanent supportive housing are formerly homeless individuals, many of whom have certified disability or are managing addiction. Many rely on public transportation. “Many have no family or social network nearby to help, and many are elderly or have pre-existing conditions that put them at risk during this pandemic. PADS is their lifeline in a normal situation,” he says. “Now, it’s even more important that we ensure that they have access to a variety of nutritious foods.”

Bob says PADS’ first priority in this crisis is safety and supply. “Dropping off those boxes of food is a way of saying ‘Someone cares about you…you still matter’. West Suburban Community has helped us nourish their souls as well as their bodies.”

We’ve been so appreciative of folks who help us keep our volunteers and staff safe as they continue to serve. Valerie O’Connor heard that her neighbor Laura Coyle was looking for masks for pantry workers. “I think everyone wants to help, just to feel better. I’m not a doctor, but I do sew for my family and I had extra fabric lying around. So when I saw a Downers Grove mask-making Facebook page, I realized I had the resources to help.” Valerie says she’s been inspired by all the folks on the front lines. “I’m so grateful to all the people who are working so hard for our community. It brings tears to my eyes. This is the least I could do.”

Debbie Fry started out making masks for friends who had family in essential services. She posted instructions on how to make the masks, and before she knew it she had requests from all over. “My sons knew people who worked at Chicago children’s hospitals, and then I heard about the pantry. I love sewing and I rarely had the time until the quarantine.” So far she has made about 300 masks and over 100 have gone to non-profits. “I’m just happy to know that my skills are helping people help people who are struggling,” she says. “It’s such a small thing for me to do, but the impact is overwhelming. I think God has some plan for me in all this.”

John Potterton picks up our pantry donations from retail grocers and food services. He says the last couple of weeks have been tough. Grocery donations have dwindled. “It tugs the heart, everyone is so apologetic, you know they are genuinely concerned for our clients.” John says his emotions ebb and flow between gratitude and disappointment with every stop he makes. Because he has also helped clients in the Pantry in the past, he knows the families. “Honestly, I don’t know how many families are going to make it. We’re doing everything we can, but with demand increasing every day, I just don’t know…” John says the stores assure him they have plenty of food to serve their customers. His wish? “That everyone understands that if we all just buy what we need, there will be more donations to help our clients get by.”

The partnerships we have with other not-for-profits come in unexpected and wonderful ways. Recently, the Dupage Children’s Museum donated a number of new educational toys to WSCP to augment our Easter baskets. “We had all these wonderful developmental toys sitting in our Explorer Store after we had to close due to the pandemic,” says Renee Miklosik, Director of Development at the museum. “We were looking for ways to support parents and families dealing with e-learning and early childhood learning at home. Things like Kinetic Foam, Magna-Tiles and Marble Runs are great hands-on experiences for kids and caregivers alike.”

Renee says the toys are an extension of the museum’s values, designed for multiple outcomes, creativity, curiosity, and independent play as well as interaction with siblings or caregivers. “We were thrilled to find a way to continue to deliver on our mission even though the museum is temporarily closed. Being able to share our resources with West Suburban Community Pantry made that possible.”

TOGETHER, WE ARE SOLVING HUNGER