Companion Pat Woods (Columbus) didn’t expect to find another job when she retired from her job as a data processing application specialist. Then she saw a notice in January 2002 that the food pantry at her parish, St. James the Less in Columbus, needed a pantry manager.
Pat kept on noticing the notice, became interested, and thought she’d find out more about the position. “The person who was running it at the time made it sound like a piece of cake,” she said, laughing. “We’ve been there ever since.”
Pat and her husband, Bob, as well as eight other Companions, have been faithful volunteers at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul–St. James the Less Conference Food Pantry for many years. Companions Mary Alice Shields and Cheryl Seibold are the St. Vincent de Paul president and secretary, respectively. Other Companion volunteers are Darla and David Gabriel, Janet Rathaus, Gene Sipos and Barry and Theresa Wade. Companion Susie Latham helped in the pantry for many years before her health forced her to step aside.
It’s a big commitment; the pantry is open every weekday and serves at least 12 families per session. Families are referred to the pantry, which is in the basement of the parish center (formerly a convent) next to the church on Oakland Park Avenue. Teams of volunteers assemble five days’ worth of groceries for a family, which are then taken out and placed into the family’s vehicle.
“Sometimes people come to the door without a referral and need help right away,” Pat said. “We assemble emergency boxes ahead of time so that we can serve them as well.”
The pantry is affiliated with the Mid Ohio Food Bank in Grove City, across town from St. James the Less. That’s where Bob comes in. “I’m the guy with the pickup truck,” said Bob, who is a retired data processing manager.
Bob drives to the food bank once a week to pick up produce: potatoes, onions, cabbage, apples. “It’s all free to us, all we have to do is pick it up,” he said. “We pick up all the produce we can get, whatever they have available.”
The organization rents a larger truck if more food is available, he added. The pantry receives, on average, 10,000 pounds of food per month brought in on the larger truck, and 5,000 pounds per month that Bob and other volunteers haul in their pickups.
The pantry also receives donated food from St. James the Less and other parishes in Columbus. Those parishes also supply donations and additional volunteers, Pat said: “A lot of wonderful people help out and donate.”
Because they work with the Mid-Ohio Food Bank, there’s a lot of paperwork involved—but it’s not on paper. Pat is at her computer early most weekday mornings, checking to see what’s available at the food bank. She determines whether it fits the need at the St. James food pantry, and if it’s free or available at a nominal cost. She then places an order, making the food pantry’s resources stretch as far as possible.
The food bank also requires that the food pantry keeps track of the recipients, who have to sign an electronic form before they receive their food. “We go upstairs with a tablet and meet them at their cars,” Pat said. “We get to talk to the people then, and that’s the part I like best.”
People are often grateful for the food that they receive, which in turn makes Pat grateful. “That makes my day,” she said. “It’s then that I know that we’re doing God’s work, that we’re actually helping people, and that they receive that help with grace and appreciation. I’m thankful that the Lord allows me to be there and do this. I feel blessed by the people whom we’re helping.”
Pat remembers sliding a box of groceries into the back seat of one family’s car and seeing a toddler there. “She just looked at me, and she was smiling with the most angelic expression on her face,” Pat said. “She was a beautiful child to begin with, but it wasn’t that. There was something special about that encounter.”
Moments like that confirm her commitment to the vital work of the food pantry.
“I connect what we’re doing to our Precious Blood spirituality,” she said. “We’re feeding the poor and we’re helping people. Many of them have had difficult times in their life, and this is reflected in many different emotions on their faces. I don’t focus on that; you do the best you can. We’re only going to spend a few minutes with them. Sometimes, simply by talking with them for a minute or two, they’ll start to smile. We hope we can lift them up to see they are loved.”
“Gaspar told us to go out to the marginalized, the people on the edges,” Bob added. “Those are the people we encounter.”