The line at Fred’s Pantry was not too long on a recent Saturday morning. But volunteers started showing up at 8:30 a.m. and throughout the morning to help out anyway.
Fred’s Pantry, a run out of by local volunteers and supported by the Westchester Food Bank, Shop Rite and Panera, is just over two years old. Ruth Wells, the Peekskill resident and board chair for Caring for the Homeless of Peekskill (CHOP), who has been running the pantry for most of its existence, has the process down to a science.
“I love the volunteers, and I love doing it. It is energizing,” Wells said of getting up early every Saturday to spend about four hours running the pantry.
On a Saturday last month 67 local families moved through the pantry, down significantly from a high of 127 families in the winter.
Wells arrives around 8 a.m. to take inventory and plan the distribution for the day. As volunteers arrive she assigns them to their jobs – shopper, bag dispenser, bag assistance – and explains what items they have that week, what they can be generous with and what should be stretched so that every shopper can have some. Volunteers come mostly from St. Peter’s Church, three or four other churches and other community groups. Local teens, some fulfilling community service requirements, come by and help out as well.
There are several stations that help control the registration and flow of shoppers since each shopper needs a volunteer to walk them through the pantry to monitor their portions and place the food in their bags for them. (There are liability concerns over allowing shoppers to take food from the shelves themselves.) The number of portions of each major food group shoppers are allowed depends on the size of the family.
“The need was there and I was already involved in volunteering,” Wells said. “I liked doing it and I liked being there. It just seemed natural.”
Wells’ husband, Jim Knight (who is also a Patch blogger), started helping out too, running the Friday part of the operation, ordering and stocking from 8:30 a.m. to noon with the help of volunteers.
Over the last two years, Wells and Knight have seen slight changes in the demographics of the people who utilize the pantry.
“There are changes in the summer because we serve a lot of day laborers’ families and when they get work we don’t see them,” Wells said.
“I was surprised and saddened by the number of seniors that started to come right away. It makes you realize how many seniors are getting by on not enough to pay for their rent, medications and their food. And we are glad to be able to help them. And there are maybe a few more families that look like they have finally come to the point of economic downturn of not being able to make it,” Wells said, adding that there are more younger families than there were initially.
In addition to running the food pantry Wells has recently spent the last six months as an unofficial acting director of CHOP.
Former director Jeanne Blum o move on to the Westchester Coalition for the Hungry and Homeless last November and “I sort of slipped into minding the store,” Wells said. Wells had been working as a set designer for “One Life to Live,” where she won an Emmy for her work, for more than 20 years. But the show was canceled last fall, right around the time that Blum left CHOP.
Since Wells had been volunteering and a CHOP board member for years, already time consuming work, once she then had a lot more free time on her hands she was glad to help run things while the board searched for a new director.
Last monthwas hired as the new director and Wells helped get her on her feet and has now been able to step back a little from the director duties. She is now focusing on her volunteer work and searching for a new job.
Before Wells got involved in community work, she took a shot at local politics. She became involved with the Democratic City Committee after becoming friends with Drew Claxton, a current city council member. Then she ran for city council in 2003 and 2005, but lost both times, the latter election she lost to current Mayor Mary Foster.
Through her campaigning she met people and became more involved with the community, which lead to her involvement with CHOP, Relay for Life, campaigning for the Middle School bond to pass several years ago, and other community activities and groups. She is now serving her second term on the city Planning Commission. Her term as CHOP chair will expire this year and it will be someone else’s turn to serve in that roll as each chair can only serve two terms.
“We have got to give everybody a chance,” Wells said.
Now, while Wells pursues a new job, she will continue to dedicate herself to feeding the hungry of Peekskill every Saturday.
“It has become a little Saturday ritual for us,” Wells said. “And I love it.”