When Sister Margaret Halligan announced she was retiring from her longtime post as director of the St. Barbara Parish Food Pantry, there was some concern about its future.
After 34 years, Halligan, then 87, wasn’t just director in name only. She kept the records (all on paper) and made pitches to the community when the shelves grew bare.
She was there every Monday when the pantry opened at 9 a.m. and its clients came in to collect their two bags of groceries (one for single clients) for the month. And helping Halligan for most of those years was a cadre of nuns like Sister Thomas Agnes, who also has retired.
But a visit to the food pantry on Monday proved that the transition from Sr. Margaret to a lay leadership has gone about as well as could be hoped for.
Although the pantry lost its first lay director, Maria Espinoza, earlier this year when she moved away from the area, the role has been filled by Aida Gatch, a parishioner whose children went to the parish school and who also runs the St. Barbara Medical Lending Closet, where those in need can borrow things like canes, walkers and wheelchairs.
Gatch really didn’t know what she was walking into when she agreed to become the food pantry’s director three months ago.
“I didn’t even know where it was located,” she said of the pantry, which occupies a small space in a non-descript building at 9300 47th St. “I thought, ‘Are you sure you want me?’ But I think I was meant to be here.”
Gatch was sort of drafted into the job by another woman who is part of the pantry’s regular, and mainly lay, group of volunteers. Joy Klang, who started volunteering at the food pantry three years ago, knew Gatch was a willing volunteer who had worked in the school kitchen in addition to running the lending closet.
Klang’s husband and Gatch’s husband were also fellow members of the Brookfield VFW. When asked how she ended up at the food pantry, Gatch replies, “Joy is the reason why.”
Since Sr. Margaret’s departure, some other things have changed at the food pantry. For one thing, all of the pantry’s client records are part of a database on the computer that now sits on the desk just inside the front door of the pantry.
Clients are allowed one visit per month and having everything on the computer makes it easier to keep track of records. Within the past couple of months, Gatch created a Facebook page for the food pantry, which has paid immediate dividends. Her posts get shared on other Facebook community groups “and food started coming in left and right.”
In the past couple of years, Klang has expanded the pantry’s selection of clothing and housewares. While the food pantry has always had coat drives for the winter months, Klang has started accepting more and more clothing. Now the selection changes with the seasons, in addition to staples like blue jeans, socks and the like.
There is also a set of shelves that holds dishes and glassware. Some of the items are donated; others are left over from estate sales that Klang helps conduct.
“Everyone here calls it Joy’s closet,” said Klang of the small section of the front vestibule that holds the clothing and houseware items.
Other things haven’t changed. Sister Joellyn Grandchamp and Sister Lucy Giachetti still work at the food pantry regularly, though they’ve been joined by about a half-dozen lay volunteers.
People still appear randomly to donate bags of canned goods — on Monday someone showed up with several bags of russet potatoes — and even fresh produce from their gardens. Pepperidge Farm donates cases of goldfish crackers as their expiration dates draw near.
Other groups, from the Brookfield Post Office to local schools and scout troops to the LaGrange Park police, hold food drives for the pantry.
Dennis Tischler, from Tischler’s Finer Foods, is basically on call. The store has an ongoing food pantry donation program that customers contribute to, and when the shelves get low of particular items, Gatch will call.
On Monday morning, Tischler showed up with cases of peanut butter, jelly and soup.
“I’m there 2-3 times a month,” said Tischler, whose children also attended St. Barbara School. “They do a great job of getting food out to the people.”
The food pantry kicked off its holiday food drive last week at Brookfield’s Monsters on Mainstreet event, and they’ll be sure to get plenty of donations as the holidays approach.
But the need is year-round, and the inventory does get low. On Monday, there were some bare shelves where the volunteers stock canned vegetables and pasta sauce.
With up to 50 clients coming in per week (the food pantry averages about 130 clients a month), the pre-bagged items move out the door quickly.
“The food comes off the shelves fast,” said volunteer Bill Martin, who just started volunteering.
The St. Barbara Food Pantry, 9300 47th St. in Brookfield, is open every Monday (except holidays) from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.