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Community kitchens and pantries look for volunteers year-round



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Volunteers work at Monroe County Community Kitchen last December. The Hoosiers Hills Food Bank is one of Monroe County Community Kitchen's main food contributers. Stephanie Haberman / IDS File Photo Buy Photos

Though the holiday season is in full swing, help centers and kitchens are still the same as they are throughout the rest of the year.

Debbie Hopson, volunteer coordinator for Community Kitchen of Monroe County, said the amount of people they have sign up tends to spike around the holiday season, but there is a number of volunteers they take each shift. This keeps the volunteering spike maintained so the kitchen does not become chaotic.

“I just go, ‘Next!’ and I go right down my list,” Hopson said. “The volunteers seem to peak this time of year. Donations seem to peak. We put out a plea, and now they’re almost filled.”

Hopson began at the community kitchen as a volunteer in 2011 and now runs the volunteer coordination for the kitchen. She assigns shifts and manages the sign-up list for those who volunteer on a regular basis and other sign-ups throughout the year.

The Community Kitchen of Monroe County has worked with the community since 1983. The kitchen works to educate the public about the extent of hunger in Monroe County, explain various causes of hunger and provide ways to respond to hunger needs in the community, according to the kitchen’s website.

“Sixty percent of our programs are children’s programs,” Hopson said. “Fourteen percent are seniors, and the rest is the mixed 
population.”

Some people are between jobs and just need help to manage, she said.

The services included are available to anyone and everyone. There are no eligibility requirements to be a part of the kitchen or receive services. The community kitchen was founded on the principles of privacy for all patrons, balanced and nutritious meals, and staying a community effort.

“The need is here all year,” Hopson said. “People are not just hungry at 
Christmastime.”

She said the spiking in volunteers typically begins around Thanksgiving. People will start thinking about signing up in September. She said on a daily basis she has 15 people on the books.

The community kitchen functions as a normal restaurant and is open Monday through Saturday on a year-round basis.

“We are a soup kitchen,” Hopson said. “On the holidays at Christmas and Thanksgiving we give out a bag of groceries, and it’s no set thing, just what we can get our hands on.”

One state away, in Naperville, Illinois, a food pantry also limits its volunteers.

Maureen Gonzalez, a coordinator at the Calvary Church Pantry, said it has a set group of volunteers who work with the pantry 
year-round.

“There’s always people looking to do community service hours even not during the holiday times throughout the year,” Gonzalez said. “But we’re only open for two hours every Thursday morning, so we are not as open as much as a lot of food pantries are open. We’re not able to take on a lot of volunteers.”

She said many of these volunteers are calling to do community service hours either for school or a church program. She said they try to send the people they can’t take to other places around the area, including Feed My Starving Children.

The food pantry is connected with Calvary Church in Naperville. The pantry mainly provides food staples.

“We don’t get a lot of fresh food. If we do, it goes really fast,” Gonzalez said. “Canned goods, boxed goods — we give people a box of food. If they need clothing also, they are given a shopping bag. It’s $2 to fill up whatever they can fit in the bag.”

She said they fill up their bags, pay at the register, hear the people’s stories and pray with the people in need.

Amanda Nickey, CEO of Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard, said as a food pantry they always encourage donations. Food drives are even more common around the holiday season.

The food pantry, based in Bloomington, is a non-profit organization offers a grocery style pantry where patrons can come in and fill one bag per household and an extra bag for produce, according to the pantry’s website.

“We see a bit of an uptick for people who want to donate and do food drives.” Nickey said.

Hopson said the community kitchens has between 1,500 and 1,600 volunteers per month. She said they use this set number and move down the list every time someone cancels.

“I actually have people get upset that they can’t come in because we already have people who have taken the time to volunteer,” 
Hopson said.

She said this is a reason that while signups for volunteering may increase, the amount of actual volunteers will stay the same. There can be a void during IU student breaks. This leaves the kitchen with a large base of the community kitchen’s volunteers missing, particularly on the days leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“We need more volunteers not just on those days but the week of and the week after,” Hopson said. “So when everybody’s gone, there is a big need.”

The need for volunteers and interest in service does not go away after the holiday season, however, and these places look for a way to keep interest steady throughout the year.

“I really wish that type of spirit was year-round,” Hopson said. “We tend to see it peak this time of year. It makes it kind of hard during the rest of the year. It’s a good-bad thing.”

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