Williamstown Pantry Offers 'Family' Food, Camaraderie
Pantry coordinator Frances Flaherty checks the boxes of goods being distributed for the holiday.
Ninety 90 cans of peas, 90 cans of corn, 90 bags of potatoes, 90 boxes of cake mixes, 90 boxes of pasta, 90 cans of pasta sauce ... you get the picture.
It seems impossible that anyone would want to have on hand such a large quantity of food for a holiday meal, unless you know that the woman penning the list is Carol DeMayo, director of the Williamstown Food Pantry.
"We never refer to those who come to us for help as 'the poor.' They are family!" DeMayo explained in an interview at Sts. Patrick & Raphael Parish Center, where the Food Pantry is located.
Some 90 or so families were expected this past Friday to pick up holiday food baskets and allowed to "shop" from the dozens of boxes of food lining the walls and the donated coats and linens.
Anything left over was headed to Northern Berkshire Hurricane Relief to be trucked to help the Superstorm Sandy victims in New Jersey.
For nearly 30 years, the food pantry DeMayo started has been providing sustenance to those in neeed, including the fixings for a holiday meal.
"There has been an increase in the number of people who come to us for help due to low income, layoffs and the Spruces," De Mayo said, referring to residents of the mobile home park damaged by Hurricane Irene. "This is the second year we are taking care of anyone from the Spruces."
In addition to canned and boxed food, those in need will receive fresh produce and a turkey/small chicken or turkey breast, based on the size of the family. "Some pantries do not give out turkeys," said DeMayo.
The day before Thanksgiving food baskets were to be distributed, DeMayo was like a whirling dervish. She rushed from the table where she was making out her list to the tables where volunteers Frances Flaherty and Barbara Joseph were setting up an assembly line in preparation for the packing of baskets.
"How much [this or that] do we have on hand now?" DeMayo asked the volunteers. Then she would added another item to her list, such as 80 laundry soaps, 80 body soaps.
The Village Ambulance and Liz Smith of Country Gardens pick up the groceries. "I trail behind to pay the bills," said DeMayo. "Stop & Shop and Price Chopper are very generous. Price Chopper gives us odds and ends."
After answering the phone, DeMayo dashed to the kitchen, where Kathleen Connors was spooning honey into plastic containers (approximately 15 gallons of local honey had been donated).
"Cathy, we have to go to Whitney Farms," said DeMayo. "They have a lot of butternut squash and are donating a pallet. We'll give half a pallet to other food pantries."
Pat Fix folds donated clothing; below, boxes of turkeys ready for pickup.
DeMayo feels it is important that people know food pantries share with each other.
"When we have too much of an item, we give it to a food pantry where it is needed," she said. "North Adams helped us in tough times. The Spruces drained our resources."
However, DeMayo asks that people in need go to the food pantry that serves the community where they live, "Otherwise it's confusing."
Williamstown takes care of Williamstown, Lanesborough and Hancock; North Adams takes care of North Adams, Clarksburg and Florida; Adams takes care of Adams, Cheshire and Savoy.
"Adams requires that people show identification — electric bills, drivers' licenses, before receiving groceries. But here in Williamstown, we feel we know most of the people who come to us," said DeMayo.
The Williamstown Food Pantry is wholly dependent on volunteers and donations, which, DeMayo said, "works well. It's amazing how generous people are, and we are fortunate to not have to pay rent or other expenses to use the Parish Center."
DeMayo started the pantry on a few shelves off the center's kitchen; as it grew in size, the parish put on an addition exclusively for its use. On distribution day, it was packed with food and piled high with boxes of turkeys.
Among the organizations that support the Food Pantry are the Rotary Club, Williams College retirees, churches, synagogues, and the "Hancock Fire Department supports us in a big way every year," DeMayo said.
Children haved help, too, with Boy Scouts and Pine Cobble students helping with packing and unloading.
"I always tell the children, 'once you start [helping those less fortunate than you], you know, you have to continue doing it for the rest of your life," said DeMayo.
Likening the Food Pantry to a wagon wheel, DeMayo said. "The center is the people who come to us for help, the spokes are the contributors and the volunteers, and that's me running around the rim. "
People show in various ways how much the help they receive means to them. One woman was surprised by the selection of clothes, toys and bedding: "It's for us? It's free?" Another cried when she received a notice that holiday food baskets would be given out.
"People always thank the volunteers," said Frances Flaherty, who with fellow coordinator Barbara Joseph and Robert Skovera are DeMayo's go-to helpers.
In December, some women cry when they see beautifully wrapped presents waiting for them.
"It may be the only Christmas present they will have to give to their child," DeMayo pointed out.
And there is an intangible benefit for everyone who comes to the Parish Center: camaraderie.
"We always have a little party — tea and coffee and cookies. Our family takes great joy in it," said DeMayo. "They get to check on each other. It's an old-fashioned community center."
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