Mabel Wayne looked the part of a school principal walking the halls during a recent food pantry distribution at St. Ailbe Catholic church in Calumet Heights.
Wayne doled out hugs, encouragement and instructions in equal measure. She kept clients moving in an orderly fashion around the church hall lined with tables of produce, milk, bread and other goods. She bantered with her helpers, too, most of them wearing bright orange shirts emblazoned with the words: “The Emergency Food Pantry, VOLUNTEER.”
“Anywhere you go, if people know that you care about them, then they do better. They act better,” Wayne said. “One thing that we require here is – we’re going to give you respect and you have to respect us. We don’t tolerate any misbehavior inside this place.”
Wayne comes by that approach honestly, having worked as a physical education teacher and, eventually, assistant principal at Englewood High School for more than 35 years. Now 78, she’s the director of the food pantry at St. Ailbe – part of the Food Depository’s network of more than 700 partner agencies and programs in Chicago and throughout Cook County.
The pantry at St. Ailbe, officially known as the St. Katherine Drexel Parish of Chicago at St. Ailbe after a recent consolidation of parishes, serves about 600 households a month in this South Side neighborhood. Volunteers at the pantry also connect clients to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, Medicaid and other forms of assistance.
Sammie Wayne III, Wayne’s late husband, ran the pantry with six other men as part of the church’s Men’s Ministry. When he died in 2015, his wife assumed the leadership role. Asked if she was carrying on her husband’s legacy at St. Ailbe, Wayne corrected the wording of the question.
“It’s not a legacy," Wayne said. “It's a service."
"I was helping him anyway," she said. "We didn’t make a big thing of it. We just moved on.”
At the beginning of the distribution, Wayne addressed the pantry’s guests, giving them a brief overview of the process and the expectation for respectful behavior. Once the distribution was underway, Wayne zipped around and checked on people. At times, all it took was a smile or a touch on the arm.
Other times, she asked: “Are you OK?”
That’s a complex question to answer succinctly for many people who turn to food pantries. Camille Shavers, 76, described the neighborhood as “a sort of food desert” and said the St. Ailbe pantry’s assistance helps her offset other costs, like mounting medical bills. The encouragement from Wayne and other pantry volunteers lifts her spirits.
“It’s a special place here,” Shavers said. “Everything they do here, they do it with love.”
Clifton Young, a 69-year-old diabetic, said he struggles to walk some days because of his arthritis. Young worked in the service department of a car dealership before retiring in 2012. Now he mostly lives on Social Security and SNAP benefits.
Given those challenges, Young said he’s turned to the pantry off and on over the past few years.
“I really appreciate it,” Young said. “One of the great things they can do is help people and feed the needy.”
As Wayne will tell you, there are many older adults in Calumet Heights who lack proximity to grocery stores; many of them also don’t have cars, further limiting their access.
Calumet Heights has an older population with a lower median household income than the figures for the city of Chicago as a whole, according to Census data.
“The people have a need and the help is so far away, they can’t get to it right away,” Wayne said. “I would say the need is great.”
As she explained the need in the community, Wayne was interrupted by an announcement to the bustling room of clients and volunteers – later in the month, there would be cake and ice cream, a special treat provided by the church. On the same day, there would also be a mental health training for her volunteers, some of whom face their own daily challenges.
People are hurting, Wayne said, but the Emergency Food Pantry at St. Ailbe is a place of healing and community.
In her own words: “We all carry suitcases full of rocks. I tell them to leave them at the door.”