Food Pantry: Generosity Grows with Need
“There are a lot of glamorous ways to be involved in the non-profit world,” says Brittany Hargrove, Shelter Manager at St. Matthew’s House. Standing out in the heat and humidity to distribute food is not glamorous, but Brittany wouldn’t trade it for any number of fund-raising galas. “Never in my life have I experienced a more rewarding way to meet the practical needs of people.” Especially right now.
The Food Pantry is located just outside the Emergency Shelter, which houses 104 men, women and children. Since she began managing the shelter and pantry, Brittany has seen an increased need for both services. However, the COVID-19 crisis has brought on unprecedented growth in the number of homeless and hungry people in Collier County.
Before the pandemic, Brittany tells us, the main food pantry served between 30 and 50 households every Thursday. A second food pantry in Fort Myers served another 100 to 200 families once a month. There was also food distribution to another 60 individuals at a local senior community.
The number of people coming to the main pantry increased in the last week of March, when non-essential businesses began to close their doors due to COVID-19. “We jumped to 91 families at our Thursday distribution,” Brittany says. Soon, they were serving 387 families, then 580. “Yesterday, we served 645 households, and it’s still growing. We could easily be up to 800 or 900 households at each distribution next week.”
From the start, Brittany tells us, donations have kept pace with need. “That last week of March, when we saw the numbers jump to 91, we got an influx of fresh food donations from restaurants realizing they were going to have to close down,” Brittany relates. However, there have been additional challenges. As more families came to the food pantry for assistance, traffic backed up onto the highway and we moved our food distribution site to First Baptist Church of Naples. We have also needed more volunteers to accept and sort donations and to pack and distribute food bags.
Local media is drawing attention to the mission’s needs. “The food pantry has been on the news almost every day, and that’s bringing in more donors and volunteers,” Brittany tells us. Additional volunteers are coming from an even more surprising source. “At each distribution center, I have people who come in to receive food and they tell me, ‘I’m out of work, but you’re making such a difference in my life. Can I volunteer until I’m back at work?’ The fact that people who are in need want to give to others in the same circumstances is pretty amazing.”
If you would like to give something yourself, there are several ways to help. Financial donations are always needed and appreciated. If you have time to spare, we can use you in many parts of our organization. You’ll find more details later in the newsletter and on our website. Finally, non-perishable food donations are critical! Please look over the following list of most-needed items and bring them to our main office at 2601 Airport Road South. Thank you!
- Pasta and pasta sauce
- Tomato products
- Mac and cheese
- Dry cereal
- Dry beans
- Chef Boyardee or similar products
- Canned tuna and chicken
- Canned vegetables and fruits
- Single-serve snacks
Miracles and Milestones
“God is very present in this time,” says Dwayne Gordon. As Vice President of Programs and Ministries, he sees God at work every day at St. Matthew’s House. Especially during these past months of record-setting need, he tells us miracles are happening.
“We look out and see the rows of cars for the food pantry,” Dwayne says. “We have no idea where the food is going to come from, but the volume of donations goes up! You think of the biblical story about the feeding of the 5,000. Actual miracles happen right in front of us.”
Dwayne tells us the outpouring of generosity from the community is truly a gift from God. “Last week we gave 15,000 pounds of food to 700 families. We keep getting more donations, and we’re able to serve more families. It’s been a huge blessing.”
There are also challenges in other areas of the mission’s operations.
Justin’s Place Recovery Program is celebrating a milestone — its tenth anniversary — with residency at capacity and a growing waiting list. As residents shelter in place, staff are finding creative ways to keep them engaged, including weekly worship services. “It gives them an opportunity to step up. It identifies their gifts and talents and helps them realize they have something to offer,” Dwayne says.
Also, St. Matthew’s House had to furlough many program graduates employed by our social enterprises. Dwayne tells us these employees received their stimulus checks and unemployment assistance and have recently returned to their jobs. Many of them benefit from transitional housing provided by St. Matthew’s House for a fraction of what comparable lodging in Collier County would cost. To help avoid relapses during this time, Dwayne says St. Matthew’s House is developing remote programs to provide encouragement and support.
Through it all, Dwayne says, “God is demonstrating Himself to us. We just need to open our eyes to see Him.”
“God is watching over us.”
When Dee Cucinella came to St. Matthew’s House to volunteer in our food pantry last November, she wondered, “What did I get myself into?” It was our busiest time of year for food donations and distribution. But Dee stayed and found she loved it, working two mornings a week.
Starting at a hectic time helped prepare Dee for the high-volume demand our food pantry has experienced since the outbreak of COVID-19. Dee now volunteers five days a week, mornings and afternoons. And she still loves her work!
“I feel like I was being prepared for this,” Dee explains. “It’s been so fulfilling. I get way more out of it than I put in.”
Asked whether she had any concerns about exposure to the virus, Dee says, “I keep praying to stay healthy so I can keep helping. I’m still fine and everybody I work with is okay. We’re blessed and God is watching over us.”
God is also watching over the food distribution. “It became a joke,” Dee tells us. “I’d say we were almost out of pasta, and someone would show up with so much of it! If we just put it out there, God will answer. The generosity of the people who give has to come from God.”
Dee wants to remind you that any donation of food or money goes a long way. “There are so many people hurting right now, and they’re so happy to get whatever they can.” She also encourages you to consider giving of your time when opportunities open up again. “I really believe in helping. It’s such a great feeling to help feed people and keep them in a safe place. When you volunteer at St. Matthew’s House, when you meet the people and hear their stories, you feel even better about what you’re doing.”
If you’re interested in applying to volunteer, please visit our Volunteer Hub.
Our volunteer opportunities have been limited out of an abundance of caution due to the COVID-19 situation, but they will be opening up gradually and we will be happy to see more of our volunteers returning soon!