At the end of 2011, my wife Jen and I decided we would give of either our time or our money at least once per week in 2012. We decided to donate at least two hours of our time or at least $25 each week. As we began the new year, many of our friends were interested in our new commitment, and so I decided to write about the organizations we work with and the experiences we have. The stories told here are meant to shed some light on volunteering - the kind of work that is out there, and the clientele that is served, and to provide information about who is making a difference out there, and what you can do to help. Please come back often and share our experiences as we move through our giving year.

Also, we are always looking for new organizations to work with, groups that are doing good work and could use either our hands or our money. If you know of a volunteer opportunity or worthy cause, please leave it in a comment. Thanks for your help!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Week 7 - Lakeview Pantry, second visit

This week we returned to the Lakeview Pantry, West.  As before, we worked distributing food stuffs to those in need.  (For an overview of what the pantry does, see the post from our fist visit, HERE.)  As I noted in my last post about the Greater Chicago Food Depository, I was able to take more pictures and gather more details because I did not have to learn the ropes.  I also got a lot more information about the "behind the scenes" work at the pantry, but I will say more about that later.

Jen and I got to the pantry a little early, and so we helped out the prep crew by bringing an assortment of meats from the freezer to distribution area.  It is always a challenge to set up the meat area.  The goal is to offer 4 choices from different categories of meat, but the stock of meat that the pantry has is not always easily divided - each category needs to have about 30 items in it to guarantee that there will be enough for everyone. For example, this week, there was plenty of chicken, so one of the four categories was just that - chicken.   We found 30 beef items, mostly ground chuck or sirloin.  We also found 30 packages of various kinds of sausage, mostly from Trader Joe's.  It was mostly chicken sausage, but was spiced in a number of different ways and made for a nice selection.  The final category proved to be something of a problem.  We did not have enough pork to make a it a category, or enough fish, so we ended up offering a mish mash of items.  There were some very nice cuts of fish, including salmon, mahi mahi, and tilapia, as well as some beef tips, curry chicken tenders, ribs, and a couple of hams that worked well for some of the larger families.  Since I knew what the story with the meat was, I got picked to distribute at that station.  Jen got picked to do breads and desserts, where I was the last time we were here.  That meant we were pretty far apart on the line, so we did not talk to each other at all during the time the pantry was open.

This week there was a smaller crowd of people than the last time we were here, and many of them were just collecting for themselves instead for a family.  We also had a number of large families, with five, six and in one case seven members.  Everyone was friendly, and were much less particular about the kind of meat they got than they were about bread the last time.  I also handed out eggs, milk and red orange juice, which provided for a lot of conversation.  Mostly, no one recognized the bottles of red juice as OJ, and I had to convince them.  Rounding out my station was a selection of fresh salads, some salsa and tabbouleh, and some single serving peach sorbet cups.

In all, we served 32 individuals representing 60 people.  There were a number of memorable people - a mother with her very young (maybe two or three years old) daughter, a couple where the husband had been laid off the day before, and a mother with three toddlers at home.  That last woman who was collecting for a family of four, kept telling us that we were giving her too much because she only had little ones.  It was really great to be able to see the gratitude on here face, and on the faces of all the other people.  I was thanked warmly many times during the night, and I really got into a groove of making conversation to help the clients feel relaxed and welcomed.  It was great to connect with so many people and because I was the first stop in the line, there was not a rush at all.  When you work further down, things get a little more backed up as people take time to get the food into bags and carts, and you have to focus more on making sure everyone gets what they are due without taking too much.

The pictures below show you the general serving area and a selection of the food that is offered:

If you look at the top picture, which was taken at the end of the night, you can see chairs on the right.  These are unstacked to make two rows in the tiled area where the clients come to wait their turn.  They are checked in one by one, and then they go up to the counter.  There are five stops along the counter - meat and fresh items, canned goods, pastas and crackers and such, breads and desserts, and fresh produce (on the shelf at the end).  They are then pointed at the door (where the exit sign is) and they can be on their way.

At the end of the night, I spent a little time talking with Carrie, who runs the pantry.  I took a picture of here, but it turned out to be a little unflattering - I will try again next time...  In any case, she reminded me that Anyone who lives in an area bounded by Damen St. on the West, Irving Park Rd. on the North, Racine St. on the East and Fullerton Ave. on the south can come and get food from the pantry, once per month.  She also told me that the East location of the pantry is actually bigger and has some office space.  The pantry has 12 - 13 full time staff members, but Carrie is the only full time person at the West location.  She has one part time assistant, and the rest of the labor is all done by volunteers.  Lately, the pantry has been doing a lot to try to discover what else they can be doing to help their clients.  They recently did a survey that revealed some interesting things.  Not surprisingly, many of the respondents said they felt like they were out side of the community, or did not have any community that they felt a part of.  As a result, the pantry is doing more social gatherings and combining social and educational opportunities.  See the picture of their white board:

If you look closely, you can see that there is a class in nutrition, a social events that also includes information on other services that are available to those in need, and an opportunity for HIV testing.  By expanding and offering theses services, the pantry can become a one stop resource to serve a wide variety of needs beyond hunger.

Another interesting result of the survey was that a much greater number of respondents had access to the internet than expected.  They found that people took advantage of public libraries as well as relatives or friends to be able to stay connected, which led to an online calendar of events being posted on the pantry website.  If you are interested, you can check it out HERE.

The last story Carrie had for me was about a student group from the nearby church school that toured the pantry last week.  They were curious about how the pantry was able to afford to give away all the food for free, and asked about how long it takes to hand out all the food in their storage area. (The answer is about three weeks, serving about 350 people per week.)  Carrie remarked that it was really enjoyable to see how much the kids got into the idea of helping others, and how much wonder they brought into the room.  All in all, the pantry has been busy!

Just like last time, Jen and I had a blast.  We signed up for a night in a couple weeks, and I am quite sure at this point that we will keep working with Carrie and her team for a long time.  It is such a lift to be able to help these people, and to make friends and have fun at the same time, that I don't think we could stop if we wanted to, so look for most posts from the pantry.

If you want to help, you can give time or money on the pantry's website:

Lakeview Pantry

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