catherines cupboard 3Faces of Mercy nourish food pantry started by college and town

Sitting at his desk amid bags and boxes filled with macaroni and tuna, not far from the stack of mixed fruit cans near the door, it’s easy to imagine Mike Blais ’09 has a job connected to food. Donations at his Campus Ministry office appear randomly and often. And they signal how meaningful Catherine’s Cupboard Food Pantry has become to the campus community and beyond.

As the VISTA volunteer coordinator of the pantry’s day-to-day operations, Blais says he realized just how meaningful, when an e-mail went out to all college employees asking to pitch in food for the pantry. An online faculty member who lives in Mississippi responded. When she realized it was impractical to send food that far, she sent money instead. And just recently, Blais was called to a nearby elementary school, because the children had collected five boxes of food to donate and the school’s PTO had donated $500.

Rebecca Hilton, director of Campus Ministry, says the pantry gives people a concrete way to care. “It puts hands and feet to Mercy,” she states.

A group of 15 to 20 volunteers – town residents and college students – come every Wednesday night to help out at the pantry, giving it a welcoming family atmosphere. Along with sorting and bagging the donated food, they set out tea, hot chocolate and cookies, along with arts and crafts for the kids table.

People picking up food are intentionally called friends or neighbors, not clients. Blais simply considers them people who need food, and hospitality is part of what is dished up. The purpose of the pantry is to affirm the dignity of every person who seeks food, which is considered a basic right of anyone who comes to the door. “This is not simply a food distribution system,” Blais states firmly.

There is no question Catherine’s Cupboard has filled a need. The economy withered just five months after the pantry opened, making food security a big issue for a lot of area people. The number of families served has nearly doubled since the pantry began two years ago.

During that time, community members have welcomed the chance to volunteer. Bon Appétit, the campus food service vendor, has donated meals, and Saint Joseph’s students have helped out as part of their service learning courses and in their own free time. The Town of Standish, which donated space for the original pantry site, allocated space for the pantry in the new town hall so it could expand and improve storage space. Corporate donations from Hannaford Supermarkets and quarterly federal food shipments have helped to anchor the food supply, along with area schools and clubs, campus donations and food drives.

A gift from the late Andrew and Helen McSween made starting the pantry feasible because the organizers knew they could buy food, build shelving and pay a stipend to a coordinator. But Hilton says it was the heartfelt intention of the organizers that fueled the forward motion – and what she calls grace. “The town put its heart and soul in it. We got together and no one was sure how this would work. It all got handled because people got together and said, ‘This is what we need to do.’ The only bottom line we had is that people needed to get fed.”

The first week Hilton bought all the food, but that’s the last week she had to. Donations and energy and volunteerism snowballed. Hilton recalls that the day the pantry phone got hooked up: The first call came in from a woman in her 80s who wanted to volunteer but wasn’t sure how she could contribute physically. She now handles the greeting and registration table every week.

“What got us over the hump was not being afraid,” Hilton says. “If you do the right thing, more comes back, like Scripture says. It’s wonderful what can happen when you let your motivation be doing the right thing.”

In the future, Hilton and Blais would like to see the pantry evolve into more of a community resource center that offers skill classes and includes a clothing pantry. “We’re there to be of service … We can’t fill every gap. But we can put people in touch with other resources,” says Hilton.

One of the big thrills for Hilton is “seeing our students fall in love with service, seeing them recognize they can make a difference and that the best gift they can give is themselves.” Every Wednesday a van transports student volunteers to the pantry. Hilton says that for a generation and culture often wrapped up in self-entertainment, to be drawn out of themselves and see they can be merciful gives dignity to young people. “For them to see the power of gift is like seeing the Gospel enacted,” she says. Hilton believes the pantry is a clear expression of Mercy that everyone can get behind. “It’s a great sign of hope,” she notes.

At the food pantry: reflections on the spirituality of giving

with Rebecca Hilton, Director of Campus Ministry

“I think everyone who volunteers feels just as blessed as those who come into the pantry for groceries. It’s a good thing to do and people recognize that and want to be part of it. I think people have great generosity; they just don’t know where to go with it.”

  • You never go out to the pantry and leave not feeling good. It’s more than handing out a can of tuna … it is showing people that they are not alone, that their cares and burdens are our cares and burdens. That makes it lighter for everyone.
  • Helping at the pantry is a way to say thank you. For so many of us, if anything happened, we’d need to be in line for food pretty fast. We’re so grateful for what we have, and by giving back it’s a way to say thank you and to share the blessings we take for granted every day.
  • It’s the charism of the Sisters of Mercy and the college at its best when we’re using our gifts, talents and resources to serve the common good. What’s interesting is it didn’t cost us very much; it’s been self-sustaining from people’s generosity. When we risk doing justice, God makes up what is lacking.
  • I think at the heart of Catherine’s Cupboard is a belief that it is the right and dignity of every person to have what they need. It’s none of our business why or how they need food. They’re not strangers; they’re our friends and neighbors. We are all children of God, and we have an obligation to them and they to us. It’s about community. It’s important that the hungry are fed, and it’s important for those who are not hungry to feed others. I often wonder who receives the greater gift.
  • We’re showing our students work that is motivating and inspiring. It’s one thing to be sorry there’s hunger in the world and another to get off the couch and go to the pantry. When Christ called us to love and justice, it wasn’t an impossible task, merely one we need His grace and help to do. The pantry is a living reminder of what can happen when we are willing to show up.
  • The world needs people of good will working together. It inspires other good works and both the giver and recipient get blessed. We all need community, just as some folks need food. We’re starving for it, we’re as hungry as the people coming in, and God sees to it that both get fed.