West

Food pantry gets a boost from high-tech retirees

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe
Betsy Comstock (left) taught Open Table volunteer Sue Grolnic to use the software she developed with Paulina Krebbe.

Paulina Knibbe and Betsy Comstock are just two of some 700 volunteers at Open Table.

But their recent work behind the scenes has made it easier for the entire organization to provide groceries and meals to people in need.

Combining their expertise in computer engineering and customer experience, the two retirees have designed and implemented software systems to improve operations of Open Table’s food pantry in Maynard and weekly community dinners in Maynard and Concord.

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“What Paulina and Betsy have put in place is a way of leveraging our biggest asset — our volunteers,” said executive director Jeanine Calabria.

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The systems are used to schedule volunteers for shifts at the food pantry and dinners, register new food pantry clients, track usage, and schedule client visits. They also organize demographic information such as clients’ hometowns — data important to the Greater Boston Food Bank, of which Open Table is a member agency.

“They have created ways to make our operations work smoothly,” Calabria said.

The project has been a gratifying way for Knibbe and Comstock to use skills they honed over decades of employment and community service.

Like many retirees, Knibbe hoped that leaving the workplace would free up time and energy to devote to volunteer causes. But after spending her whole career in the high-tech sector, she didn’t want to lose touch with her computer engineering skills.

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“I’ve always loved problem-solving,” said Knibbe, who worked in computer networking and systems development at a number of California-based startups before moving to Acton. “I didn’t want to walk away from that.”

Knibbe’s first postretirement technology project was automating the scheduling for The Discovery Museums in Acton. Then she designed a volunteer management system for Household Goods, an Acton-based nonprofit that provides furniture and household items for people in need.

Through that role, she met Calabria, Open Table’s executive director, who asked Knibbe to consider doing the same for her organization.

Knibbe was also active with the Acton-area chapter of the League of Women Voters, where she met Comstock. She too was retired from the high-tech sector, where she had applied her psychology degree to various roles that integrated technology with customer usability.

But Comstock had another field of expertise as well: hunger relief. After retiring at the age of 62, Comstock and her sister embarked upon a two-year project in which they traveled across the United States, volunteering in food pantries and other hunger relief organizations in all 50 states.

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As a result, Comstock had a unique perspective on what worked and what didn’t work when it came to food pantry management. And Knibbe had the expertise to fix what was wrong.

“Basically the challenge is to make the technology disappear for the people who are using it,” said Comstock, who lives in Concord. “Open Table is unusual in that it has a volunteer base of about 700 people. Paulina and I needed to find ways to put those people to best use.”

Initially, the two worried that clients would find the high-tech approach off-putting compared with the previous, paperwork-based version, but it turned out to have some surprising advantages.

Calabria cites the example of checking in a client. With the old system, clients would say their names and the check-in volunteer would have to find them on a list. It could be hard to hear if the room was crowded, and a client might be required to repeat his or her name several times.

Merely swiping an electronic ID card bypasses such awkward and potentially stigmatizing communication issues.

They feared, too, that clients accustomed to the old drop-in system would resent having to schedule their visits to the food pantry. But to the contrary, the client scheduling software has eliminated long lines and tedious waits for food pantry users.

For both women, retirement is a chance to live out their dreams of using their skills to make the world a better place.

During the busy years of full-time employment, “I didn’t have any time to volunteer,” Knibbe recalled.

“Once I stopped working, I could try to give something back,” she said. ‘Handing out food at a food pantry, though a very valuable practice, does not draw on my fairly unusual skill set. And state-of-the-art technology often comes at a price that makes it not available to the organizations that most need it. This is something I can do to put my most valuable skills to their best use.”

Comstock agreed. “Everyone wants to make a contribution to society in a way that values them as a unique person, beyond just their willingness to do good,” she said. “We found an organization receptive to our abilities.”

Nancy Shohet West can be reached at nancyswest@gmail.com.