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While the stock of food fluctuates at the on-site food pantry at St. Augustine’s in Belleville, the volunteers are always constant. Every Tuesday and Friday, senior helpers stock shelves, pack bags full of non-perishable food, milk, and eggs while sorting donated fruits and vegetables in their spare time.
Approximately 15 to 18 parishioners volunteer their time, serving about 50 people who come to the window adjacent to the garage attached to the parish rectory each week. On a typical Friday morning, Clete Blaes makes conversation with a Belleville resident seeking groceries to feed her family.
“We’ve grown to have a personal relationship with many of the people,” said Blaes. “It feels good to volunteer.”
Open to Belleville and Swansea residents, the food pantry was established by Msgr. Urban Kuhl in the 1980s with just a few extra items stored in the rectory. Now, the hygiene items, household supplies and groceries have taken over the rectory garage.
“It’s just grown and grown through word of mouth,” said Wanda Knepper, social concerns ministries coordinator for the parish. “The theory behind the pantry was never to feed a family for a week. We are just trying to supplement what they need and provide an added resource.”
When needed, the volunteers refer people to additional food pantries in the area and centers offering free meals. Each bag also includes the parish bulletin as a way to invite the recipients to join in parish services, said Knepper.
“It’s a piece of evangelization,” she said.
Although the volunteers are a key element of the pantry’s success, Knepper said the donations received also keep the shelves stocked and area residents supplied with the basics they need when times are tough. In addition to donations dropped off at the back of St. Augustine’s church, the pantry receives financial support from local organizations such as the Knights of Columbus, the Boy Scouts of America and St. Vincent de Paul. The Swansea Farmer’s Market brings fresh vegetables and fruits on Thursdays and Westminster Presbyterian Church donates funds, food items and fresh-grown vegetables from the church’s “Garden of Hope.”
And, while those benefiting from the food pantry receive supplemental food and household items they need when they come to the window, they also get a chance to join in the laughter and social atmosphere the 15 to 18 volunteers provide each week.
“The food pantry volunteers are the face of our parish in community outreach,” said Knepper. “They meet and greet our clients and have come to know them on a first-name basis.”
Volunteer Judy Bauer said the work is worth it. “I love talking with the people,” she said.
A need to help and a few jokes from Blaes during their shifts keeps the lively group ready to serve. “We’re just here to help – not to question,” said Blaes.