Need is great, but outpouring greater
Volunteers spend many hours loading, sorting and arranging food items that are donated, but they are grateful for the opportunity to help their neighbors. They keep smiling, even as the need continues to grow.

Submitted by Joan Letourneau, EYFP volunteer communications consultant

We all remember what we were doing and how we were feeling this time last year as shelter in place orders took effect, closing schools, restaurants, and many businesses and creating pandemonium as people scrambled to stock up so they could stay in.

The COVID-19 pandemic also threatened the continued operation of the Elmhurst-Yorkfield Food Pantry (EYFP) at a time when those who had never needed to ask for food before were losing their jobs in record numbers and many of the pantry’s regular volunteers were in high-risk groups.

“Unprecedented became the word of the day,” Deb Rutter, a member of the EYFP operations team recalled. “And there was always a new worry – do we need to wear a mask or not, is it okay to leave donated food in the pantry’s garage for a few days, how was this crazy thing transmitted?”

When the pantry lost four of its volunteer shift coordinators in one day, Deb stepped up to fill the gaps to the tune of 700+ volunteer hours in the past year.

Scott Bohaboy, a volunteer food recovery driver for EYFP, agrees there was quite a bit of uncertainty in the early days of the lockdown given the challenges created by the pandemic, but “the operations team did a great job of quickly implementing a number of significant changes in order to ensure the pantry could continue to serve clients safely,” he said.

A necessary change…

The pantry was built around a client-choice model with dignity at its core, so placing pre-packed boxes of food into the trunks of clients’ cars was a difficult but necessary change. The pantry went on to modify this no-contact, drive-up procedure to enable clients to choose the items they wanted from a pre-printed list and then wait for volunteers inside the pantry to bring it out to their cars. The use of tablet devices further streamlined the registration process.

“Pantry leadership made a huge on-the-fly adjustment to keep the pantry open to meet the urgent need while maintaining social distancing to keep everyone safe,” EYFP client service volunteer Trish May recalled.

Pre-pandemic, Trish’s role often was to keep shoppers and volunteers moving smoothly through the pantry, so she naturally stepped into the “inside coordinator” role when EYFP moved to a drive-up model.

“We progressed from handing out a box of food to actual shopping lists and service as close as we could get to what clients had experienced in the past,” Janet Cox, a member of the EYFP operations team said. She coordinates volunteers for client service shifts and handles volunteer inquiries, which went up dramatically when COVID hit. “Flexibility comes from wanting to do the best you can for the clients, and making it work. We did that.”

“I can only imagine the positive effects of allowing clients to select their food as opposed to making the choices for them,” EYFP volunteer Chuck Lesh said. He gave 500 hours this past year unloading deliveries, restocking the pantry and being a backup food recovery driver.

“While these changes created some additional operational complexity, all the volunteers did a great job staying flexible in order to ensure that the pantry could continue serving the community,” Bohaboy added.

May explained it this way: “You’d work a shift and get the hang of the new process, and then the next time you came in the procedure had changed – and that was okay. Both new and veteran volunteers rolled up their sleeves, jumped right into the fray, and found their rhythm. It’s been a ton of fun to be with these marvelous, enthusiastic, problem-solving people.”

Rutter concurred.

“Our volunteers made it all possible. Every day they would come in and look to us for the plan for the day,” she said. “When a client yelled out their window ‘you’re doing God’s work’, one of the volunteers replied ‘no, we’re doing what Deb tells us to do.’ We’ve laughed many times about this path we have taken.”

“Our Saturday crew has wonderful camaraderie,” Ted Gregory, a regular client service volunteer, said. “Deb kept telling us how great we were doing – she is a lot of fun. And clients have been immensely appreciative – some made us masks, others wrote notes, many called us angels. Believe me, no one ever referred to me as an angel before!”

Holidays heighten the need

The true impact of the pantry’s volunteers and the generosity of our community came into sharp focus during the holiday season last year. Dubbed “Super Tuesday 1 and 2,” EYFP’s extra distributions on the Tuesdays before Thanksgiving and Christmas provided clients with complete holiday meals in addition to their regular November and December shopping.

“Super Tuesday 1 was an amazing day,” Rutter recalled. “It started with the arrival of the semi-truck from the food bank filled with 18,400 pounds of food, including the pantry’s regular order as well as the Thanksgiving turkeys and sides.”

The stacks of boxes were as tall as the volunteers and the three lines of cars picking up food stretched as far as the eye could see.

“We fine-tuned some things on Super Tuesday 2, and it went even better,” she said.

Dozens of regular EYFP volunteers and those from several of the pantry’s community partners worked together to distribute more than 500 turkeys, 450 hams, and literally tons of sides, produce, and dairy items to neighbors in need during the holidays.

“Our clients were patient and kind and cheerful despite the wait, and it was just a delight to see their smiles,” May said. “Pure holiday magic!”

Grateful for contributions

The overwhelming outpouring from donors and the surrounding community also helped ensure the pantry could continue offering an abundance of nutritious food without scaling back its service hours despite increased demand and new COVID-compliant protocols.

“Every shift, we have people stopping by with small bags of food – or entire trunks full – that they want to donate. And many times throughout the year, folks have handed me $100 bills to buy what we needed,” Rutter said. “They were thankful to be doing okay and wanted to give back.”

Since mid-March 2020, the pantry has seen its food distribution numbers jump by 30% and the number of new families served by nearly 50%. EYFP serves residents of Elmhurst, Bensenville, Addison, Lombard, Villa Park, Hillside, Berkeley, and Oak Brook.

“Our volunteers, many of whom faithfully work one shift each week, stepped up to make sure the pantry could continue to operate during the pandemic,” EYFP Executive Director Kathie Watts said.

Bohaboy, who spent nearly 30 years in the corporate world and has kids in high school and college felt like it was time for him to give something back to a community that has had such a positive influence on him and his family.

“There are so many people struggling for a multitude of reasons, and the opportunity to help them out, even in a small way, is really rewarding,” he said.

“This past year, the news seemed saturated with dark and scary things, but thanks to EYFP, that’s not the America I see,” May said. “Our community is compassionate, motivated, generous, and kind.”

“Volunteering at the pantry has proven to be very purposeful work, and I was especially grateful to be able to help during the pandemic,” Gregory said. “It has been an adventure that has made these months more meaningful – I honestly look forward to my shifts.”

 

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