Britton Christian Church members Ernestine Thomas and Winifred Owens had a dream of helping neighboring residents who might be having a difficult time feeding their families.
So, in 1991, in a space about the size of a garage, the women and other volunteers opened the BritVil Community Food Pantry.
More than 22 years later, the pantry is a much larger operation in a 5,600-square-foot building at 8717 N Western Ave. And the faces of those who come to the pantry to pick up sacks of groceries to help nourish their families tell a story of the program's success.
“I used to have two jobs and now I have one job,” said a 45-year-old father of three. “I'm not making the money I used to.”
What he and his wife took home that day would be “a little extra food” for his growing family.
The pantry has continued serving its surrounding neighborhood through the years with the help of donations, grants and volunteers.
“Through a series of things, God has very well taken care of the pantry,” said Sue Butler, executive director of the faith-based BritVil Community Food Pantry.
On a recent chilly day, volunteers not far from Butler's office were filling grocery carts with food and wheeling them toward a door so another volunteer could help clients load the new bounty.
The carts were stocked with salad, onions, potatoes and a variety of other produce, as well as juice, a loaf of bread, ham and more. There was even the addition of a treat, whether it was cupcakes or doughnuts.
Volunteer Debbie Gustafson, busy loading paper grocery bags and filling the carts with food and household items, said she felt very blessed and fortunate and wanted to pay it forward.
“It's a privilege to come here and serve people who need help,” said Gustafson, 57, who originally became involved through Britton Christian Church.
During 2013, the BritVil Community Food Pantry served 19,423 people, equating to 6,885 families, said Butler, 62. This is about a 5 percent increase above 2012.
The primary purpose of the pantry is to serve food to families who are in need, Butler said.
“And also to share the love of Christ with everyone that comes through the front door,” she added.
Pantry staffers try to build relationships with those seeking help to determine what their needs are.
“If we can help them with food and that helps them, we've done a good job,” Butler said.
About 100 volunteers staff the pantry each week, with the average age of the volunteers being about 70.
“It's kind of a twofold ministry: the people that come in for food and the people that volunteer here, that they have a purpose and a meaning,” she said.
“They are just great with the clients. They talk with them. They visit with them. They are phenomenal people with the way they work. They're just amazing. They work very hard.”
Jo Fischer, once on the paid pantry staff, now volunteers her own time.
“We, the volunteers, get more out of it than the clients,” said Fischer, 67. “They become family.”
Most of the people seeking food from the pantry are either walk-ins or referrals and look like one's neighbor.
Understanding the need
Butler said it's really important for people to understand there is a need in the community, to know what others are going through financially.
“They're struggling,” she said.
“We see people coming back. That's what's amazing,” she said. “All of a sudden, people that have been maybe gone for a couple of years, and maybe they had a job, all of a sudden they're coming back again. Their circumstances have changed.”
Butler said those receiving help appreciate it.
Sitting in the waiting area at BritVil, a 57-year-old grandmother of two grandchildren with disabilities smiled and said the staff was always so pleasant and nice.
She explained the food she would receive that day would help supplement her own pantry at home.
“People don't realize, without the pantries, there would be a lot of people without food,” she said.
A note from another client summed up the impact of the pantry:
“First, I would like to extend a warm heartfelt thank you for blessing my family in the time of need. I recently lost my job, paid rent and have only been able to get by. ... Thank you and God bless you again for your efforts to make things possible when life fails us or we fail ourselves.”
Butler spoke of the success stories, where former clients were able to move beyond the circumstances that had brought them to the pantry door.
Perhaps the food the pantry provided during their journey was part of what helped fuel the success.
“BritVil really is a beautiful story ... and it has evolved into what it is today,” Butler said.
“We know food. We do food very well, and serving this community is what we're all about.”