Graciously Feeding the Hungry
Heat and humidity were soaring that particular Monday morning in July even at 8:30 a.m. Volunteers for West/Mark Food Pantry were unloading boxes and checking inventory for their weekly pantry. Donated homegrown produce was taken downstairs, and a very tall gentleman, first in line, offered to open the high windows.
The volunteers, all seniors, some more senior than others, were friendly, cheerful and made no comment about working in the heat. The pantry, located at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 1420 W. Moss Avenue in Peoria, is a combined effort with St. Mark’s Catholic Church. It’s open Mondays from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. The pantry primarily serves those living in the 61606 zip code. If someone living in another area comes to West/Mark, they are given food that first visit, but are told about a pantry in their area, complete with address and directions for future visits.
Shirley Kellerstrass, 83, has been working at this pantry for 20 years. “There are a lot of hungry people out there. It’s a rough go.” Currently Shirley helps open, and stays until it’s determined sufficient volunteers are present, although some weeks she stays the entire time. Adele Fleming, 87, is the most senior volunteer and has been involved in the ministry some 25 years. “Almost from day one,” she says. About 9:25 a.m. she leads the volunteers in prayer. “We come in joy to serve you this day,” she prays, as the group holds hands with heads bowed.
Linda and Joe Leddy take seriously the Biblical command to feed the hungry. They have been serving people at the Bartonville Christian Church Food Pantry since the pantry began in February of 1982. The couple, along with Kathy Ashby, and the church’s former pastor, Jack Thompson, members of the church’s Benevolence Committee, began by giving out food received from Food Bank commodities. Someone drove to Springfield monthly to pick up the commodities for distribution to needy folks on Mondays at the Church, located at 4900 W. Pfeiffer Road in Bartonville.
“I was young then,” says Linda smiling. “There were other people helping, but some of them have died.” A scrapbook she compiled details the progression of services and includes pictures and names of volunteers and the many organizations that have generously donated time and resources. Thirty years is a huge commitment of time, but Linda, 69, isn’t planning to retire. Neither is her husband, Joe, 71, who is also very involved with the pantry.
Linda’s dedication to helping those in need is easy to detect in her conversation. She expresses gratitude for the many volunteers, and the many churches, organizations, businesses, and individuals who generously donate to the pantry. “We all work together to make this work,” she says proudly. The pantry, like many others, is staffed completely by volunteers, all retired seniors, who wear their age and their generosity well.
“There are people everywhere who are hungry,” says Mike Parmenter, a weekly volunteer with his wife Melody at Bartonville Christian. On a Monday morning, the first group arrives around 8:00 to fill the boxes given out from 1:00 to 3:00. There’s much laughter and good-natured teasing among the crew. It’s obvious the volunteers like being there and enjoy their time together. This pantry serves people in the Limestone Township area and people may visit the pantry once every four weeks. Just recently they had eight new families in one week. They serve an average of 28 families weekly.
The folks at West/Mark serve some 55-70 families weekly, although one week 93 families asked for food. People can come once every 30 days. About 10 volunteers work each Monday to operate the pantry. “We have great volunteers,” says Diane Nowlan who does scheduling and helps people with check in. A picture ID and a piece of mail or a bill with a current address are typical identification requirements for pantries. A rather unique give-away at West/Mark is the birthday bag for a family who has a child celebrating a birthday in that week. Each bag contains a cake mix and container of frosting, with other varied items in the bags such as party favors, decorative napkins and tablecloth, a stuffed animal and other toys appropriate for the age indicated on the bag. Birthday bags are donated from people at Westminster.
Pantries receive food from generous individuals, churches, civic groups, businesses, and Heart of Illinois Harvest regularly delivers food from grocery stores or restaurants or other donors. Midwest Food Bank also helps supply pantries with food, as does the Peoria Area Food Bank. Even with such generosity from many, food pantries are traditionally in particular need of donations during the summer months.
When asked what information they want people to know, more than one volunteer mentions the need for food. The inventory is low at both pantries, and those in charge are hoping for donations. Donors can bring food items or money. Volunteer shrewd shoppers go to various stores to buy food items with donated funds.
At West/Mark pantry, people are asked if they are walking home. Some are, and their food is packed in sturdy handled plastic bags for easier carrying. Other folks receive food in boxes. The pantry people are generous, and the bags are full, and walking home is tiring in the heat. No complaints are heard, only “thank you.”
Volunteers at both pantries comment about enjoying the work and finding it fulfilling to help others in need. And they all speak about suspending judgment. “We don’t always know the details in people’s lives,” says Linda Leddy. And Shirley Kellerstrass believes, “It’s not our judgment call. I would never want to turn away someone who is hungry.” Diane Nowlan adds, “We don’t make judgments. We want to be kind to people and feed them.”
Mission accomplished each Monday, with volunteers and those families needing food leaving with a sense of satisfaction and gratitude.