Religion

Volunteers from St. Luke gather weekly to organize, box donations to God's Pantry

Esther Marcum, left, and Connie Rouse tried to decipher the expiration date on a can of baby formula. Volunteers also do   precautionary checks such as making sure no one has taken a finger full of peanut butter from what is supposed to be a new jar.
Esther Marcum, left, and Connie Rouse tried to decipher the expiration date on a can of baby formula. Volunteers also do precautionary checks such as making sure no one has taken a finger full of peanut butter from what is supposed to be a new jar. Photos by Mary Meehan

A happy hum fills the chilly warehouse above the muffled clank of cans of soup, beans, mandarin oranges and other donated food being sorted and boxed.

It's Thursday, so the volunteers from St. Luke United Methodist Church are working at God's Pantry food bank. They're here every week.

"Soups up!" whoops Betty Yates as she finishes filling another carton with cans.

A few minutes later Connie Rouse chimes in, "Extras, there's a box of extras," and that is inevitably followed by one of the dozen volunteers joyfully adding, "Extra! Extra! Read all about it."

Esther Marcum and her husband, Jim, are part of the group with the easy banter.

"We've been married 60 years," said Esther Marcum as she and her husband worked the sorting line. "It's been a long, sometimes hard, 60 years but what can I say, I love him."

"You don't treat him very nice," observed Lonnie Yates with a grin, prompting Esther Marcum to shrug as if to say, 'well, there's that,' but neither pauses from the bustle of the ensemble's task.

The group, made up of retirees ranging from missionaries to engineers, fills six pallets each week with sorted food at God's Pantry, a non-profit food bank serving 380 agencies in 50 Kentucky counties. Each week volunteers take the jumble of donated food from large industrial bins, sort it by categories like soup or starches and repackage it in boxes to be distributed to local pantries.

The dozen or so industrialized bins filled with donations will soon be empty. The jackets put on for warmth at the beginning of the two-hour shift will mostly be shed by the end.

And this is a fraction of their effort for the hunger organization. In addition to their warehouse work, which adds up to 1,200 hours a year, the group served 3,500 families in the pantry site at its church in 2009, working an additional 1,725 hours, said Linda Lancaster, who coordinates the food pantry volunteers. If you do the math, that's equivalent to one person working round-the-clock for 122 days.

The need for food in Fayette County has risen some 34 percent since the recession began in 2007, and the group has responded in kind, Lancaster said. It has opened a Kids Café site to serve hot meals to children after school and has begun a seniors commodity program that delivers baskets of staples to the elderly once a month.

This Thanksgiving, the group's church will be giving holiday meals to 1,400 families.

The food pantry at the church was closed for three months this summer because there wasn't anything to give away. But that makes the volunteers just want to work harder.

"More and more people are needing this," said Gil Rouse, who volunteers alongside his wife. "That inspires us."

The couple have been volunteering for God's Pantry for about 10 years. They learned early on that it's most often not the destitute that come for help.

"We are feeding the working poor," said Connie Rouse. "Almost all the people are living paycheck to paycheck."

Like the best volunteers, they give credit to others. The real thanks, they say, ought to go to Kroger, Meijer and Wal-Mart, which all make contributions.

When they started, Connie Rouse said, meat wasn't available for the food boxes given to families. Now, most families get a meat item thanks to donations from the food chains.

Betty Yates, who serves as coordinator of St. Luke's volunteers, said the group's motivation is pretty simple: There's a need, they have the means to help, it's the least they can do.

And if others are interested in being of service, she makes a point to mention, the pantry has an ongoing shortage of breakfast foods. For some reason those donations just aren't coming in.

"God said 'feed the hungry'," she said. "This is a service to God just like going to church is a service to God."

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