“How have you been?”
Gerard Pelletier and Steve Jandreau cheerfully greet people as, one by one, they drive up to the front of Saint Charles Borromeo Church in the northern Maine town of Saint Francis.
“Hi Bill! How’s it going?” Steve asks as a gentleman gets out of his vehicle.
Gerard and Steve are among a handful of volunteers who sort and distribute food once each month from the Saint Charles Food Pantry. Both have been helping out since the pantry first opened its doors about seven years ago.
“They asked, and I couldn’t say no,” says Steve. “I see that the people are in need of it.”
“People needed food. That is the reason it started,” says Gerard.
When the food pantry opened, Gerard says the number of people served was in the 30s. On this day, 78 boxes are prepared, and sometimes, that number spikes even higher. Those served live in Saint Francis, as well as the neighboring communities of Saint John and Allagash.
“I’ve lived here are all my life, so most of them, I know. The only people I don’t know are those who just moved into town or something like that, but I get to know their names after a while,” says Steve.
“Whenever you have a chance, you can chat with a few of them whom you haven’t seen in a while,” says Crystal Jandreau, whose been volunteering for about a year. “It brings people together.”
To receive food, residents must apply through Saint John Vianney Parish in Fort Kent and meet income restrictions. Most of those receiving help are senior citizens who have worked most of their lives but now find that budgets are tough to balance.
“I’m on Social Security, so every little bit helps,” says Sharon Forest, who volunteers and receives food. “[Social Security] does pay my bills, but it doesn’t leave a whole lot extra for groceries and stuff, so this really comes in handy.”
“It helps a lot because I’m on a fixed income,” says Beatrice. “I live all by myself, and I have a house to take care of.”
“This helps big time,” says Diane, who relies on Social Security. “It’s a blessing.”
Most of the food that is distributed is picked up each month at Catholic Charities’ Caribou Food Bank. The food bank supplies 24 pantries across Aroostook County, which, together, served a total of 23,000 people last year.
“That’s one out of three people in Aroostook County that we help, and many are senior citizens,” says Dixie Shaw, director of hunger and relief services for Catholic Charities. "They're on limited incomes, and there is not a lot of money for anything else, and the one place people can cut back is food. You can't cut back on your heat. You can't cut back on your lights. You can't cut back on your medication.”
Residents receive an assortment of boxed and canned goods, along with some fresh meat. In May, for instance, clients were able to choose between chicken and lamb and between hotdogs and moose hamburger. Parish food drives also help stock shelves, and sometimes, area farmers will donate potatoes or other produce.
“It’s helpful to have commodities around that you don’t normally have, that cost a lot, like peanut butter and stuff like that,” says Earlene, who has been coming to the food pantry for four years. “You don’t go out and just buy it, but it’s good to have.”
While most residents drive to the pantry, Brent Pelletier and Don Laverdiere will make deliveries to those unable to drive.
“We go five miles this way, probably four miles that way,” says Brent.
The food pantry depends almost entirely on volunteers to keep going. Crystal says she has always felt called to reach out to others in need.
“If I see somebody, I will go help them out. I’ve always been like that. I just love doing that,” she says.
Gerard’s wife, Judy, is the one who calls the clients to make sure they know when the food will be available.
“I feel it’s just a small thing to try to help people get the help they need, especially for food, so they can afford their meds,” she says.
Her phone calls are also a way of touching base with the residents to make sure they’re doing OK.
“There are a lot of people who are more or less shut-ins,” she says. “For some of them, that is the only phone call they get.”
While the volunteers are committed to serving others, they could use a little help themselves. Currently, the food is stored and sorted in the hall located in the basement of the church. That means carrying items up and down stairs, with volunteer Jeff Jandreau doing most of the heavy lifting.
The parish applied to Catholic Charities’ Parish Social Ministry for a Matthew 25 Award to convert a two-car garage on the property into the pantry. Needed renovations include insulation, lighting, electrical work, and a heat pump. The parish received a $3,000 grant to get the project started. It was among 10 parishes awarded a total of $15,000 for parish social ministry programs.
“The Saint Charles Food Pantry application to develop new space was a perfect fit for the Matthew 25 Award because it expands the capacity of the ministry to continually serve people as well as accommodate the needs of their volunteers to have the pantry on the first floor. We have nearly 200 direct service ministries through the parishes, and it is really important to have facilities and equipment needed for these volunteers to live out their baptismal call to serve their neighbors. This award will allow for parishioners to continue to volunteer at this pantry and ensure the food assistance to the community for years to come,” said Michael Smith, Catholic Charities’ director of mission.
The food pantry volunteers say it’s important for the pantry to continue to serve the community.
“It’s very valuable,” says Sharon. “We have to realize that there are people in this state who just cannot afford to buy food, and if they’re helped, that’s wonderful.”