FLORENCE—On a cold winter Wednesday, people lined up outside the parish hall at St. Anne Church long before the weekly food pantry opened at 8:30 a.m.
Some arrived on foot. Many piled into a neighbor’s car or pickup truck and drove long distances, while others rode bicycles and mopeds. Sometimes, people even show up on motorized scooters and wheelchairs.
How they arrived doesn’t matter. The pantry’s volunteers just want to make sure the people in line get what they came for — food to keep from going hungry, smiles and friendly words to show them someone cares.
Those in line know many of the workers by name.
“Good morning, Miss Juanita!” one woman shouted as she signed her name and prepared to receive her food.
Juanita Gerald waved and shouted a greeting in return.
She coordinates most of the pantry activity, including paperwork for the clients. On average, they serve 125 people a week.
Gerald, who started volunteering in 2006, said the pantry is part of a large outreach program that includes collecting clothes, furniture and other items for people in need around Florence County.
“It’s really been gratifying doing this work, and the clients are very appreciative of what we do,” she said. “I feel really good when they come and tell us good things that have happened because they’ve been part of this program.”
Volunteers purchase food on Tuesday mornings at the Florence branch of Harvest Hope Food Bank.
They also shop for specials and collect donations from area grocery stores, businesses and residents.
In the afternoons, they pack non-perishable foods into brown paper bags that sit in neat lines, waiting for the Wednesday crowd.
The current outreach program started in 2003, but many neighborhood residents remember coming to St. Anne as children to take part in activities run by religious sisters, who served the parish when it began in 1940. The sisters also started the first parish outreach programs.
Sally DePreker has volunteered at the pantry for four years.
“The people I meet here have so little, yet they are so close to God,” she said. “When you do this work, you get to see people in a new light.”
Many clients join the circle of parish life. Women attend the weekly knitting group, others come to Bible studies, dinners and holiday gatherings. Some lapsed Catholics have come back to the church.
Kay Schweers, another volunteer, staffs the front door and greets clients as they sign a register.
The retiree said people at the pantry know each other by name. Clients visited her in the hospital a few years ago after she had a heart attack, and she attended the wedding of Geraldine Gee, a client who now helps at the pantry.
“It’s a blessing just to be here,” Schweers said. “People I meet here say ‘God bless you.’ I see them around town and they greet me. It’s like a second family.”
After they receive a bag of non-perishable foods, clients head down a walkway to a room where cold foods are kept. There, Betty Richard, Rita Levitre and Evelyn Marshall hand out frozen mashed potatoes, meat, margarine and other goods. Levitre also gave each client chocolate Valentine hearts she brought.
Parish members, she said, play a big role in keeping the pantry stocked.
After Masses, people can put donated items into a barrel at the back of the church. They give turkeys during the holidays and bring fresh produce in the summer.
On Super Bowl Sunday, the youth group set up a canned food drive, with tables for the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers ended up losing the big game, but they won the day when it came to donations.
“This is a small parish with a big heart,” Levitre said.
John Goodwin, 53, lives alone and is on disability. He has been a pantry client for a year, and jokes and laughs with the volunteers as they hand him his bags.
They ask him how he is doing, tell him to have a good week and be blessed.
“I really appreciate what they do for people here,” he said. “If it wasn’t for this, an awful lot of people around here would go hungry. I enjoy seeing them every week, and because of what they do, I now try to give back to others whenever I can.”