Since it began roughly one year ago, the coronavirus pandemic has claimed more than 500,000 American lives and thrust millions more into food insecurity.
Those staggering numbers still don’t fully capture the immeasurable loss and heartache of the past 12 months. Throughout the Food Depository’s network of community partners, we’ve lost people who overcame their own challenges to serve others with courage and compassion.
We hope to honor their memories.
A military veteran who recently moved into his own apartment after experiencing homelessness. A mother who loved to laugh and sing. A beloved cook who prided himself on feeding others. A volunteer with a thousand-watt smile. A matriarch of a South Side community.
Here are just a few of their stories.
‘She will forever be in our hearts’
Vicky Jackson Bondurant, a volunteer at the Hattie B. Williams Food Pantry in Oak Forest, was someone who loved to laugh. She also enjoyed singing along to the gospel songs that played while they were working at the pantry. Even though, as pantry coordinator Annie Hill recalled with a laugh, she and the other volunteers would playfully tease her because she couldn’t carry a tune.
“I would tell her, that’s why we do what we do – because we can’t sing,” Hill laughed.
Vicky died due to complications from COVID-19 in April 2020. She was 64.
Before her passing, the South Holland resident was dedicated to feeding her neighbors in need, serving at the weekly distributions from 2012 to October 2019. At that time, she had stepped back to dedicate time to planning her daughter’s wedding, though Hill said pantry guests continued to ask about her for months after. She also participated in the Food Depository’s annual Hunger Walks and attended Lobby Days in Springfield along with other members of the Food Depository network to advocate for anti-hunger policies.
“Her humor and energetic personality are missed not only in the pantry but also as a friend and member of our ministry,” Hill said. “She will forever be in our hearts and her spirit lives in the lives of those she touched.”
She’s survived by her husband, two daughters, and one grandchild.
‘This was his family’
Jeff Bowman took great pride in cooking food for the guests of the Common Pantry, one of the Food Depository’s oldest food pantry partners. In particular, he liked preparing creative dishes using ingredients donated to the food pantry, such as his renowned black bean dip.
A native of West Virginia with an affinity for Western shirts and cowboy hats, Bowman first turned to the Common Pantry for food assistance before becoming one of its most stalwart volunteers.
“He was very clear in saying that the pantry saved his life,” said Margaret O’Conor, executive director of the Common Pantry. “This was his family.”
Bowman died in June at age 55. Though COVID-19 was not confirmed as his cause of death, he couldn’t volunteer in the final months of his life because he was considered to be high risk. As a brain injury survivor, Bowman endured many challenges. As O’Conor put it: “Not every day was peaches for him.”
But he persevered and became a leader in the pantry’s hot meal program, which serves about 85 meals per week.
“He was just so dedicated to the pantry,” O’Conor said. “He made the Common Pantry his mission.”
Bowman also attended the Epiphany United Church of Christ, where the pantry is housed (though the two organizations are separate).
“Jeff was a wonderful, generous man, who really did live to serve others,” said the Rev. Kevin McLemore, who pastors the church. “Despite many personal challenges, I think the last years of his life were his happiest, and it was because he could be of use to others.”
After his passing, the pantry started a new tradition: The Jeff Bowman Volunteer of the Year Award.
‘We act like it’s over but it’s not’
Every week for more than three years, Bruce Lockett showed up to volunteer at the Chosen Tabernacle food pantry in Bronzeville.
He was always willing to jump in and help, recalled the Rev. Sandra Gillespie, who co-pastors Chosen Tabernacle Ministries and runs the food pantry. Lockett also had a sharp sense of humor and a knack for one-liners that would cause others to burst into laughter.
A longtime resident of the Matthew House, a Bronzeville shelter, Lockett was thrilled to move into his own apartment last year. The Chosen Tabernacle community took up donations to help him buy pots and pans and other household goods.
“Bruce was a sweetheart and we loved him,” Gillespie said.
In April 2020, Lockett, 66, died in of COVID-19. A U.S. Army veteran, he was given a 21-gun salute and laid to rest at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, Ill.
The Chosen Tabernacle community was recently rocked by another tragedy – the Rev. Angela Dixon, an associate pastor at the church, died of COVID-19 on March 1, 2021. Dixon, 53, was a mother of five children and a teacher.
“We act like it’s over but it’s not,” Gillespie said. “We stand on our faith because our faith is all we have.”
‘It’s about giving back’
Denese Penner-Smith always had an ebullient smile and a blessing for everyone who came through the line at the Harmony Community Church food pantry in North Lawndale.
“I never let anyone go home without telling them to stay blessed, be blessed and God bless,” she said when interviewed by the Hunger Beat in November 2019.
Penner-Smith was one of many older adults – particularly those with underlying health conditions – who were no longer able to volunteer at their local pantry since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. This March, Penner-Smith died as a result of unrelated health issues. She was 67.
She had visited Harmony in her own time of need after she had to stop working due to her medical issues, and she was inspired to help others in need.
“It’s all about giving back,” Penner-Smith said then. “I like seeing these smiling faces.”
Penner-Smith’s week was only complete if she was able to make it to their weekly distributions, pantry coordinator Diane Carioscio said. Even in bad weather, she would insist on making it down to the church each Wednesday afternoon.
“She’s going to be greatly missed, because it’s always great to have someone as a volunteer who always comes in with a smile and understands how to treat someone who comes through the line,” said Carioscio. “She showed love and interest to everyone who came through.”
‘I love feeding people’
In early September 2020, the Englewood community lost a beloved matriarch.
Mother Betty Price ran the Feed, Clothe and Help the Needy food pantry and soup kitchen. She was known for never turning anyone away.
“I love feeding people, that’s the gift the Lord gave me,” Price told ABC7 in a 2015 interview. “I love feeding people.”
The Food Depository partnered with Price for more than 25 years.