The New Normal
Volunteers’ pride shines at Northwest Side pantry
Women chat and laugh with their children and each other in an aural rainbow of English, Spanish and Polish. The men, silent and serious, sit hunched forward, elbows on knees.
As they wait on rows of folding chairs for 9 a.m. when the St. Cyprian’s Food Pantry opens, all around them is bustle. Volunteers pack bags of groceries and pile produce and bread on a long table.
Marge Leazer may be tired, but she wouldn't miss her shift as a volunteer. She ran a marathon the day before. "Well, half a marathon,'' she laughs. "It was 13 miles. And I was going pretty slow the last five miles. But I made it.'' She triumphantly shows the medal around her neck to prove it.
St. Cyprian’s Food Pantry, 6535 W. Irving Park Rd., Chicago, was founded in 1983. The Rev. Jo Carole Bundy, director, has been with the food pantry since 1997. "It started as an arm of the Episcopal Church,'' she says. But the pantry now is an ecumenical effort, housed in the United in Faith Church Ministry Center with donations from Catholic and Lutheran churches, as well as schools and community organizations. "We're blessed with a core of support.''
That core support is more and more necessary as the number of food recipients grows. In 2009, the pantry served 1,891 families and 7,293 individuals. In 2001, the pantry served 416 families and 1,607 individuals.
"We've never turned anybody down,'' Rev. Bundy says. "We may have had to give out smaller bags of food, but we never turned anybody down.''
Increasingly, Rev. Bundy says, the pantry's patrons are Hispanic, "65 to 75 percent, I'd say. Most of the people who come here work. They're the working poor. They just need help.''
A young Hispanic man sits waiting his turn. "I come here for my family,'' he says. "I work, but it's not enough. I come here. Here they help me.''
Warmth from helping others has brought volunteer Roberta Skelton back for 18 years. "I just enjoy doing it,'' she says. "I moved farther away, but here I am. I keep coming back.''
Coordinator Ruth Riederer has worked at the pantry since 1991. "I'd say we have about 25 to 30 volunteers,'' she says. "They come from churches, through word of mouth or they may hear about it from friends. They just want to help out.''
It's after 9 now, and patrons are being called up by number. Each patron receives a bag of groceries, maybe two. It depends on a family's size. In addition to the grocery bags, patrons are offered produce, bread and other items from the long table.
"Come on, Grandma, that's our number,'' a young woman tells the short, stooped elderly woman who has obviously put on her best outfit to come to the pantry. Slowly they make their way down the long table—the young woman explaining what is on offer; her grandmother polite and accepting.
Patrons can come to the pantry once a month. Rev. Bundy figures they receive enough food to last approximately three days. So, St. Cyprian's is an emergency food pantry. But even with resources limited, pantry staff and volunteers don't forget that their patrons are more than food recipients. They try to help in other aspects of their lives.
"One thing I'm really proud of,'' Rev. Bundy says, "is that we try to put a book in a kid's hand when they come here. It's a nice thing to do and it helps kids get into reading.''
The pantry also collects books for adults and offers them to patrons. And a corner of the pantry is set aside for donated clothing that patrons can browse through and take. By 11 a.m. the 30-plus chairs are empty. Most patrons have been served.
"We had a lot today, but you should see this place at Thanksgiving and Christmas,'' Rev. Bundy says. "At Christmas we give out gifts to the kids, who maybe wouldn't get anything otherwise. We also give out Easter baskets at Easter...You should see the kids at Christmas.”