Generosity in the face of poverty

“I was hungry and you gave me food,” Jesus said. The congregation in Denver Metro (Colorado, USA) took these words to heart and set up their own food bank. Two of the volunteers tell us the story from the beginning.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where did you grow up? What do you do professionally? Do you have family?

Gertrude Dathe: I grew up in a New Apostolic family in Canada, namely in the cities of Winnipeg (Manitoba) and in Hamilton (Ontario). On a trip to Denver in the USA I met my husband, Kurt. After our wedding, and getting a visa to immigrate, I moved to Denver. I worked in education as a programme assistant for distance learning. My husband and I raised three sons. They are married, and we have eight grandchildren. We are close to our children and their families.

Sharon Wilson: I also grew up in a New Apostolic family. My three siblings and I grew up in Buffalo, New York. I am a physical therapist, a profession that took me to several US states: Texas, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Tennessee, and Wyoming. I moved to Syracuse, New York, when I married my husband, Jim. After three years there, Jim’s job took us to Colorado, where we have lived for almost twenty years now. We have two sons, who are both in college now.

What inspired your congregation to start the food pantry?

Gertrude Dathe: The Stepping Forward initiative from our District Apostle in 2009 inspired our rector to encourage the congregation to look into the community and come up with ideas how we could get involved. Ideas were submitted and the food-drive won. Together with another congregation in the Denver area we started to collect food. Then we had to find a place to donate what we had collected. We found a small food bank not too far from the Denver church, and several members volunteered there for about five years.

When the time came to merge our three congregations in the Denver area into one, the idea came up to open our own food pantry. We did some research, visited other pantries and other churches, and finally opened up a small pantry for our congregation on a trial basis. Three years ago our congregation moved to its current location, where we have dedicated space for a food pantry, which we opened up to the public. Alone last year we served 2,700 guests and distributed 7,000 pounds of food. We are in the centre of the homeless population in our city.

Sharon Wilson: Our congregations have been donating to local food banks since the early 2000s, something that started with our Thanksgiving celebration. And then we shifted the tradition of altar decorations at Thanksgiving to less perishable foods and non-perishables that could be donated afterwards.

What is your specific role in the food pantry?

Gertrude Dathe: I am one of the volunteers, and I also schedule the volunteers.

Sharon Wilson: Gertrude was instrumental in getting the food pantry started and acted as coordinator for the first two years. I assisted Gertrude with some administrative details such as food orders, food pick-up, banking, and fundraising ledgers. In January of 2018, I took over as coordinator. I also volunteer regularly when the food pantry is open to the public.

What do you enjoy about volunteering?

Gertrude Dathe: Helping to make a small difference in the lives of those we serve.

Sharon Wilson: People. Sharing time with members of our community, getting to know them, hearing their stories, helping ease their burdens. We have gathered information about other community resources and can direct pantry guests seeking other assistance. We are trying to bring the Helping Without Hurting concepts to the food pantry, which means that we do not just help people with temporary handouts, but help them permanently so that they can lead an independent life in modest circumstances. I also very much enjoy spending time with the pantry volunteers.

How do you balance work and volunteering?

Gertrude Dathe: Being retired helps.

Sharon Wilson: I currently work part-time, so I have some flexibility in my schedule. Volunteering is my other part-time job.

Do your professional experiences help with your volunteer role?

Gertrude Dathe: Yes, because I worked in education, where the only constant was change. Growing up we were not encouraged to get involved in activities outside of our Church, and this was a new frontier for us, a change.

Sharon Wilson: Through my profession as a physical therapist I have worked with those who are less fortunate in life and have gained familiarity with that part of the population. Compassion and people skills developed in my career as a physical therapist translate well to food pantry work.

You foster co-operation between the congregation, the food pantry, and the community. How important is this in order to reach the needy?

Gertrude Dathe: We have built a working relationship with three other food pantries, and this has helped us to take advantage and participate in a fresh food programme, where the smallest quantity of vegetables we could take was 2,000 pounds. We don’t have the storage capacity for such a quantity, so by sharing with others we all benefit. We have become a member of the Colorado Food Pantry Network and partners with Food Bank of the Rockies which permits us to purchase food at a reduced price.

Sharon Wilson: Our congregation has been very supportive of the food pantry. The members donated most of the food we distributed in our early months, before we connected with our regional food bank to source food. And they continue to donate food and funds. Most of our food pantry volunteers are members of the congregation. We have a wonderful core group of eight volunteers with an additional ten volunteers who help intermittently. As Gertrude mentioned, we have built relationships with other food pantries in our area. We learn from each other and support each other. We partner with other community entities. These relationships help us to source food, advertise, increase our knowledge of the food bank industry, and help us to better serve our food pantry guests.

What is the one thing you have learned in being involved with the food pantry?

Sharon Wilson: There is need and generosity all around us. And both can be found in unexpected places.

Gertrude Dathe: That we are truly blessed in our families and in our faith. We are never alone!

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Victoria Argraves, Dinara Ganzer