By Jeffrey Fowler
(The following article appeared in the Fall 2012 edition of ChurchLife magazine, a publication of the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio)
In response to our Baptismal Covenant, the mission of the Church Home is to assist the elderly persons within the Diocese of Ohio through the initiation and/or support of programs which address their housing needs; and/or which provide services and assistance necessary for them to maintain their dignity and enhance their quality of life.
– The Church Home Mission Statement
It is a sweltering Saturday in July. Two food delivery teams from All Saints Episcopal Church in Parma pull into the parking lot of the Educator, a senior living community located in Parma Heights. Moments later John Visnauskas, Executive Director of All Faiths Pantry (AFP), arrives with a truck full of bagged groceries.
The partnership between All Saints and All Faiths Pantry goes back several years. “All Saints was one of our earliest partners,” Visnauskas points out. “I sometimes mix up the similar names when I talk with people.”
The Mission of AFP is to alleviate hunger by providing free healthy groceries to low-income seniors and those with mobility challenges.
– All Faiths Pantry Mission Statement
All Saints parishioner Marcia Day knocks on Joan’s door. Joan, who has lived at the Educator for four years, is no longer able to drive, but can still take care of herself around her apartment. She smiles as she opens the door. Day is accompanied by her daughter Jen Kunesh and her two-year-old granddaughter Ellie. Day and Kunesh have delivered free groceries to Joan for over three years. Ellie was a member of the team since before she was born.
“We generally deliver food to the same people every month,” Day explains. “We develop a real friendship with them. This is a wonderful, mutually beneficial ministry. They are so very glad to see us – especially Ellie. And we love sharing our time with them. It is not so much the delivery of a service. It is a visit with friends.”
“Not only are seniors and homebound individuals fed,” Visnauskas says “but the volunteers are also nourished by the spiritual exchange of selflessly helping another, without desire for personal gain. We draw many of our volunteers from local congregations. Ours is a simple ministry for a church to set up. The only thing needed is two volunteers who are willing to commit up to three hours every month.”
Another team from All Saints packed the groceries earlier in the day. Senior Warden Ruthann Wasil, her husband Greg, and Gil Fritzsche prepared nearly 50 paper grocery bags for delivery. This team frequently helps deliver to the 26 households at the Educator as well.
According to the Ohio Poverty Report, published by the Ohio Department of Development in 2011, the number of Ohioans age 75-plus living in poverty rose from 501 thousand to 702 thousand in about twenty years. According to Visnauskas a significant portion of these people are underserved by traditional emergency food programs. “There are many people over sixty who are unable to transport themselves to food pantries. It is this hole in service that AFP aspires to close.”
Many of AFP’s recipients are members of the “Greatest Generation. They lived through the depression and served their country during World War II. They are a proud people who never dreamed that they would one day fall into poverty. Some were reluctant to receive food for fear that they would be depriving others.
“We also serve a significant population of people who suffer from debilitating diseases such as multiple sclerosis and epilepsy” according to Visnauskas. Like many of our seniors, they are unable to transport themselves to pantries to pick up food.”
“Logistics is one of the biggest challenges for a program such as ours,” points out Visnauskas. “We deliver groceries directly to 400 recipients. That is potentially expensive. We overcome this challenge by recruiting small delivery teams, often from faith organizations – hence our name – but also from civic organizations and individual volunteers. Volunteer organizations, such as Helping Hands, also supply teams.”
“Another challenge is financing. There is government support available for programs like Meals on Wheels, which delivers prepared meals, usually for a charge. However, there are no corresponding funds available for delivering groceries. For this reason we rely heavily on grants and fundraisers to pay the bills.”
All Faiths Pantry has received accolades for its efforts. In 2010 AFP received the Innovative Program of the Year award from the Cleveland Foodbank. Since then AFP has been recognized by Parma Law Director Tim Dobeck, Cleveland City Council, Parma City Council, former Parma Mayor Dean DePiero, Ohio Senator Michael Skindell, and United States Senator Sherrod Brown.
“Despite our success, we are not interested in growing into a mega-charity.” According to Visnauskas, “I feel that small, local efforts are more effective at meeting the needs of the people we serve. We encourage others to build their own programs using our model – and we can help.”
In 2008 AFP was instrumental in helping the Parma Heights Food Pantry get off the ground, paying for its first month’s rent and helping to paint their storefront. Parma Baptist Church, which supplied a volunteer team to AFP for five years, launched its own mobile pantry in 2011 – again with AFP help.
But ties with the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio run deep.
• All Saints Parma has fielded teams for over five years.
• For the last four years the diocese has supported All Faiths Pantry with generous Episcopal Church Home grants.
• A presentation to the Cuyahoga Mission Area Council in the fall of 2011 resulted in inquiries from two parishes interested in establishing their own programs. Conversations continue and one parish may kick off a program in the fall of 2012.
• There have been three Episcopalians who have served on the Board of Directors of AFP.
“The Episcopal Church has been very sympathetic with our cause” says Visnauskas. “We share common concerns for the most vulnerable among us. It is our hope that we will continue to deepen our relationship with the diocese of Ohio. We would love to see programs like ours spring up around the state. And we would love to help.”
To find out more about All Faiths Pantry’s mission and how you can join in, please visit www.allfaithspantry.org. Contact information is available on the site.
“Ellie is expecting a little brother or sister in a few months “ says Day. We will be thrilled to add another ‘volunteer’ to the cause.”