By Pat Veltri
A flatbed trailer hitched to a pickup truck is parked in front of the Presbyterian Church. The trailer is loaded with dozens of boxes of non-perishable food items. A couple of volunteers unload the trailer with the easy efficiency that comes with experience at the job. The volunteers gently ease their dollies, loaded with boxes, down the steps to the basement of the church, and carefully unload the boxes in a designated storage area.
The new supplies will eventually replenish diminishing stock on the shelves of the Raton Hunger Pantry, a service for vulnerable families, children, seniors, and individuals who do not have enough food in their homes.
Another volunteer, with list in hand, counts out thirteen different non-perishable food items in groups of 48 from the Pantry’s shelves.
The groups of 48 food items are lined up on long tables in another room of the church basement. Cheerful banter and peals of laughter ring out as several other volunteers go about their work, forming an assembly line, grabbing empty recycled grocery bags, and deftly filling their bags with the thirteen or so items as they move along the line. Once the 48 bags are filled, the groceries are ready to give out and…the Pantry is open!
Buying, carrying, counting, recording, storing, assembling, and distributing: the Raton Hunger Pantry works like well-oiled machinery, dispensing food to the needy from the basement of the Presbyterian Church.
The Pantry got its start in the early 1980s, according to Pat Bell, and it has been fighting hunger in Raton ever since. Former Raton resident, Bell, now living in Amarillo, Texas, was involved with the Pantry for fifteen years and served as its co-director, along with her husband Crews, for eight years.
Initially, the Pantry was located in the back alley side of the RatonCommunity Center on North Third Street, and was managed by the late Kerry Palomino and some volunteers from the First Presbyterian Church. Food was collected in small amounts by a few people devoted to the cause, and occasionally Palomino was contacted by the NM Port of Entry to pick up excess food from overloaded trucks. Bell says, “Our first experience came when Kerry called to ask Crews if he would take his pickup (to the port of entry) to load the many pounds of overweight potatoes being donated by a trucking company. Reverend Art Opmeer of the First Presbyterian Church joined the task, and ‘a seed was planted’. He had the idea that the church would become the sponsor of the Pantry by offering it a new home in the basement of its facility.”
The church’s session group approved the idea. “The church not only provided this improved location, they became regular contributors of food and funds,” Bell says.
Opmeer stipulated that the director become a member of his congregation if the Pantry was to be church sponsored, and once this became a reality, numerous members of the church became regular volunteers. Ongoing food drives and donations provided food items for the Pantry’s shelves.
Once the Pantry began to grow, with the goal of helping those most in need — the elderly and the disabled — income guidelines were put into place. Unfortunately, although applications were required, Bell says “no censoring was done, and within a few years the demand became greater than the supply”.
By this time, a new pastor, Rev. Doug Rich, was at the helm of the First Presbyterian Church. When he was notified of the Pantry’s dilemma of more people than food, he decided to seek the assistance of other congregations in Raton. Bell recalls, “At that time it was decided to establish a board of directors with members being from various churches, and the volunteers would come from those contributing churches. Contributions of food and finances came through quickly, and Stan and Betty Lloyd became the new co-directors. Under their guidance the Pantry began to be run like a business with monthly financial reports furnished to participating churches, and help began to come from the community.”
With assistance from individuals, schools, civic and fraternal organizations, and postal letter carriers, the Pantry was able to distribute more food — about ten to twelve items per bag — and give small gift certificates for a couple of holidays during the year. “Local merchants helped our cause when they saw the way it (the Pantry) was being operated,” says Bell.
The Lloyds continued their work as co-directors for five years, until failing health forced Stan Lloyd to resign. The Lloyds had been training Bell as a substitute director, and she was ready to step in after their retirement. Bell states, “I continued to enforce Stan’s policy and guidelines, which had always worked well — don’t fix it if it isn’t broken!”
In addition to providing food, the Pantry also at times filled other needs. Bell cites a couple of examples: a bicycle was purchased for one individual who had no transportation to odd jobs or to run errands, a pair of contact lenses for another person was paid for by special community donors, some individuals were given assistance in obtaining jobs, clothing and furniture were provided for others, and most importantly “the volunteers always offered concern, compassion, and friendships”.
Controversial issues surfaced on a few occasions. One particular minister suggested that the organization apply for grants, hire a paid staff person, and join forces with social programs that would require meeting state mandates and guidelines. A partnership of this sort meant purchasing food from these programs — in other words, buying out of town. Bell says, “The church session and board of directors chose not to do this because the Pantry had been successful with its own guidelines, policy, and mission statement for many years. Small Raton businesses were big supporters and we wanted to keep it a community project with no government interference.”
When Bell moved to Amarillo in 2009, the Pantry was in sound financial shape, and a team of capable volunteers was in place. As she was preparing for her move, Bell shared her budgeting know-how and her expert management skills with Janet Wingo, a volunteer she had worked with for several years.
Nowadays the Hunger Pantry operates a little differently than in the past, but continues to be a successful community venture. As per the Pantry’s current mission statement, a group of dedicated volunteers works cohesively, each individual carrying out specific tasks to contribute to the purpose and implementation of the program. The volunteers share in both the work and the decisions of the Pantry’s ministry. The staff of volunteers is ecumenical, involving several denominations, and thereby promotes Christian unity.
The Pantry, continuing in the tradition of the past, is funded by donations of food and money from individuals, organizations, and churches in Raton. Janet Wingo handles the finances. Every bit of money collected is used to buy food, with the exception of a small portion set aside for postage. Anyone who donates food items or money will receive a handwritten thank-you note from Wingo, hence the postage. She is generous with verbal appreciation also, as she often thanks her fellow volunteers who consistently show up to work.
Wingo, Barbara Sexton, Barbara Yardis, and retired volunteer, June Wakefield, interview potential recipients, and process their applications. Applicants are required to submit their annual income and expenses, and each applicant is considered on an individual basis, according to need and the number of household members. “Most of our people are on SSI (Supplement Security Income), or disability. They really don’t have that much income,” says Wingo. Yardis adds, “And there’s not very many that have families. It’s mostly elderly people and single people that we serve.”
Yardis plans the “menu” of food items to be given out, and before each distribution she counts out the correct number of food items in readiness for assembling 48 food bags. She is also a meticulous record keeper, keeping track of every item of food that is purchased and donated to the Pantry.
Each grocery bag that is distributed contains twelve to thirteen non perishable items, and Yardis has several “menu” lists that she rotates so that recipients aren’t getting the same food each time. She notes, “I try to change it from what I’ve given before. And then for Easter, Christmas, and Thanksgiving, we give either ham or chicken, mashed potatoes, yams, stuff like that.” This year’s Easter bag was filled with chicken or ham, chicken broth, cranberry sauce, corn, green beans, peas, pumpkin, yams, condensed milk, stuffing, mashed potatoes, biscuit mix, and brown gravy mix.
Typically, the Pantry doles out anywhere from 40 to 55 bags of food per distribution. In addition to receiving a bag of food, each person chooses an item from the odd pick table. The odd picks are donated items that do not fit the “menu” lists. Billy Kay, who mans the odd pick table, prepares bags of snacks for children who visit the Pantry with a parent or grandparent.
Extra bags of food from the Pantry are kept on hand at the First Presbyterian Church and at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church for folks who run short of food between distribution dates. Special bags of food are provided, as needed, for homeless people, and temporary visitors who are stranded or low on funds.
Food is distributed every other Wednesday. On the days of distribution several volunteers gather to assemble the bags, disperse the food, carry food for clients, and make extra bags if needed. The assembly team is comprised of Rosalie Block, Billy and Dorothy Kay, John Kay, Nancy Poe, Barbara Sexton, Naomi Winders, and Pat Veltri.
About four times a year Wingo and Yardis compile a grocery list of items to be purchased at the local grocery store. Boxes of food are stacked on a flatbed trailer and delivered to the Pantry. David Wingo, Verner Query, and John Hudson unload the food, which is stored until ready for use.
It is the consensus of the volunteers to buy the Pantry’s food locally. Wingo says, “The Food Depot* has approached us to get our food from them in Santa Fe; they would bring the food up here. We’d buy it from them. But we have always felt that Raton was good to the Hunger Pantry and we feel like we should buy our food locally. And we do. We buy the biggest part of our food from Super Save for that reason.”
The Raton Hunger Pantry is one of Raton’s treasures. Its longevity speaks to the many dedicated volunteers over the years, the fact that from early on it has been run like a business, and most significantly the generosity and altruism of Raton’s citizens. Both Yardis and Wingo, ranking high in seniority on the current roster of volunteers, have enjoyed being part of the Pantry for many years. Wingo says, “To me it’s fulfilling. I feel that I’m giving back, giving a little of myself to the world. I donated a little bit of money to the Hunger Pantry once in a while before I even started doing anything down here. It was almost like God was saying ‘anybody can do that’; why don’t you give some of your time’? I called Pat Bell. She said, ‘Come down. We always need volunteers’. So I worked with Pat Bell for quite a few years before she left town.” Yardis enjoys the people. “I had never volunteered before,” she says. “My sister-in-law (Brenda Wingo) got me involved and I’ve been here ever since. I just enjoy the people. They’re very appreciative.”
*From the Food Depot’s website: The Food Depot, a food bank in Santa Fe, New Mexico, solicits surplus food from a variety of sources and redistributes it to non-profit agencies that in turn provide it to people in need.