Local safety net is resilient but stretched thin

The Enterprise –– Michael Koff

Dennis Ulion, a retired Voorheesville Elementary teacher who is now the treasurer for the New Scotland Community Food Pantry, tells students at a school assembly last Friday how the pantry helps families that can’t afford necessities. Voorheesville students performed in a Jan. 31 talent show to raise funds for the pantry to help stock its shelves, pictured on a screen behind Ulion.

The Enterprise –– Michael Koff

Food for thought: Voorheesville Elementary students look down from the balcony over the school’s large gym during a presentation last Friday about the New Scotland Community Food Pantry. The school raised  $1,770 from a Jan. 31 talent show for the food pantry.

NEW SCOTLAND — As the effects of the Great Recession are still felt locally and federal food-stamp cuts have taken their toll, the New Scotland Community Food Pantry has seen “a steady increase” in clients, according to Ruth Wakefield, who serves on the board of the not-for-profit.

The volunteers who work food pantry, housed in St. Matthew’s Church in Voorheesville, want to get the word out, though, that they are looking for and eager to serve still more clients.

They would also like more volunteers.

Wakefield, who coordinates holiday giving, started volunteering over a decade ago and finds the work to be satisfying. “I was a cancer survivor,” she said. “I wanted to give back to the community.”

No special skills are needed, just a “willingness to serve,” Wakefield said.

Ivan Gotham, who chairs the board, said that, last year, the food pantry served a total of 64 households, or about 150 people, in the community. The “community,” he said, is defined by the New Scotland town lines and the borders of the Voorheesville School District.

“But, said Gotham, “we never turn anyone away.”

In emergency situations, families from Troy and Rensselaer have called and been served by the New Scotland pantry.

The pantry uses a unique system to serve its regular clients; each is paired with a volunteer caregiver.

“It’s done confidentially,” said Wakefield. “The client calls a caregiver and sets up a meeting to go to the pantry, where the client shops for a 10-day supply....It’s a bit more welcoming. Other people don’t see you shopping there, and the caregiver and the family get to know each other and develop trust.”

“The caregiver,” said Gotham, who is one himself, “really gets to know the family. This year, people are having a hard time paying food bills. People are frequently being faced with running out of fuel or having their phone or electricity turned off. We’ll provide a one-time donation to their fuel supplier. We provide information on programs like HEAP,” he said of the Home Energy Assistance Program.

The pantry has an annual budget of about $28,000, Gotham said, depending on the year. The funds come from small grants, and individual and group donations. That $28,000 includes gift certificates and cards, some re-distributed by the regional Food Bank.

Recently, the pantry recently received its single largest donation, of  $1,770, from Voorheesville Elementary students, Wakefield said. The students raised the funds at a talent show. During a school assembly last Friday, Dennis Ulion, a retired Voorheesville teacher, told the kids about the work of the food pantry.

In addition to monetary contributions, the pantry receives donated goods.

Gotham estimated that the pantry served about 850 portions this year at a cost of 99 cents per meal.

Many of the donations of goods come from food drives led by community groups like the Scouts, said Gotham.

“The community is not only incredible at donating funds, but also food,” said Gotham.

He said that Judy Douglas, a retired kindergarten teacher, walks children to the pantry where they can bring their donations in person. “It’s cute and educational,” he said.

“Our success is due to the community and the organizations within it — the school system, Hannaford’s, the Rod and Gun Club, the Kiwanis, the Scouts — there are too many organizations to list,” said Gotham.

The pantry is staffed by 55 volunteers.

Gotham, who retired in 2011 from running a branch of the state’s health department, has been the board’s chairman since 2002 and a volunteer caregiver since 2000. “Now it’s become a full-time job,” he said.

Of being a caregiver, he went on, “It’s a wonderful experience. I see the other volunteers, their dedication; it’s very inspiring.”

Young mothers have joined the ranks of retirees as recent volunteers, said Gotham. “These are young women with children and very busy lives but they also find time to volunteer,” he said. “It makes you feel really good.”

Volunteers are always needed, Gotham said, and not just to serve as caregivers. “We need individuals to work at recurrent activities,” he said, like coordinating volunteers or serving as backup for core positions like answering the hotline.

“Board members are aging out,” said Gotham. “We want to bring younger people in and have them go through the mentoring process.”

The pantry started in 1988 at St. Matthew’s Church, said Gotham, stressing that it is non-denominational.

To get help from the pantry, residents may call a hotline staffed by volunteers at 765-3806. “If you need food in an emergency,” said Gotham, “she will call back and arrange a time for you to come in and shop.

“If you want to become a client, she’ll ask questions and tell you about the program. Then you’ll meet at the pantry and go through an intake process.... Then a caregiver is assigned.”

Typically, the client, a resident of New Scotland or the Voorheesville School District, brings in two forms of identification for the intake process. After that, a method of communication is set up between the caregiver and the client.

About the community members being served, Gotham said, “Our clients, many of them are very proud and don’t want to be doing this. They are very nice people...The working poor and the elderly just can’t make their bills. We supply an important safety net.”

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Anyone who wants to volunteer to help with the New Scotland Community Food Pantry or anyone who would like to become a client may call the hotline at 765-3806 for more information.

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