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‘It’s the least I can do’: In times of social distancing, food pantry volunteers step up

Mattapan’s Bobby Adams delivers 46 meals per day, five days per week, through the Ethos Meals on Wheels program, based in Jamaica Plain. His deliveries in Hyde Park provide more than food; they’re also a wellness check for elderly, isolated clients.
Mattapan’s Bobby Adams delivers 46 meals per day, five days per week, through the Ethos Meals on Wheels program, based in Jamaica Plain. His deliveries in Hyde Park provide more than food; they’re also a wellness check for elderly, isolated clients.Handout

For Acton’s Mark Sheehan, getting to the grocery store has always been difficult, even during normal times. The amputee can’t easily push his wheelchair and a shopping cart, so he usually received grocery deliveries. These days, delivery slots are full.

“I’ve always called the stores and explained my situation, but they can't fit me in,” Sheehan says. “I rely on volunteers.”

Sheehan now uses Neighbor Brigade, a service with chapters throughout metropolitan Boston. Volunteers run errands, grocery shop, and pick up prescriptions.

One such volunteer is Acton’s Monica Forrest, an Air Force public health officer.

“I’m probably the most well-informed volunteer,” she says, laughing. She feels comfortable — even duty-bound — to venture out during the pandemic.

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“My dad was a factory worker. I know what it’s like not to have things and to see everyone else have things. You’re trying to stretch a dollar as far as it will go. I’m in a different place now, and I owe it to the world to share those things,” she says. “If you’re comfortable with the CDC guidelines and not in a high-risk group, then I think those of us who fall into those categories should be doing things for those who don’t.”

As news spreads about food pantries struggling and workers stretched to capacity due to COVID-19, volunteers are essential for people like Sheehan. While some volunteers have self-isolated due to age or pre-existing health issues, other organizations are relieved to see an influx of new or existing volunteers and staffers — people home from college (or eager to escape their college-age kids), or simply happy to give back. It’s a fitting reminder during National Volunteer Week, April 19-25.

“I’m healthy. It’s the least I can do,” says Shirley’s Renee Cook, who volunteers at Loaves & Fishes in Devens. The food pantry temporarily closed earlier this month to restructure. Need surged, and a community mourned. On a typical day, the pantry would serve roughly 40 families, says executive director Patricia Stern. On April 3, the last pantry session before closing, they served 92.

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They aim to reopen at the end of this month. Meanwhile, they’ve switched from a shopping model to a no-touch bagged system, where volunteer shoppers load bundles filled with shelf-stable milk, canned goods, and produce for curbside pickup.

It’s really not the safety issue that concerns some of them. It’s the lack of human contact, the pride they took in helping a guest select just the right carrot or soup.

“I really miss the clients,” says Cook, who used to help guests shop in person. “A lot of clients would never take turnips, but now I put turnips in. Or beets!”

Sandi Mrowka is a client at Maynard’s Open Table, as well as its volunteer coordinator. She typically oversees close to 200 volunteers per week.

“We’ve actually had a vast increase in people wanting to volunteer,” Mrowka says, even as older and otherwise vulnerable volunteers have gone on hiatus. “A plethora of folks have signed up. We’ve had an amazing response. We couldn’t run without our volunteers.”

It’s personal for Mrowka. She’s on disability and relies on the pantry’s market, which is now a drive-up.

“It’s an overwhelming feeling to know we can get help without judgment. Open Table’s mission is to have healthy food in a safe place with no food-shaming. It means more than I can express. My partner and I are disabled; we can’t wait in line at the grocery store,” she says. “This gets us through the week.”

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Jamaica Plain’s Rebecca Lekowski has volunteered at Community Servings, also in Jamaica Plain, since March 2019, helping ill, often housebound clients receive medically tailored meals. A retired pediatric nurse, she bakes muffins, cakes, and breads.

A thank you sign greets a Meals on Wheels volunteer.
A thank you sign greets a Meals on Wheels volunteer.Handout

Now, her temperature is screened before she enters the kitchen. She wears a mask, hair covering, and gloves. If someone encroaches on her space, marked with an X, she good-naturedly asks them to step back. She washes her hands for 43 seconds at a time.

Her husband, a physician, was initially reluctant about her continuing to go in during the pandemic, but she insisted.

“Community Servings closed briefly to figure out how to do this safely, and when they reopened, I knew they could make it work,” she says. “If I were ill, and I opened a bag that someone delivered to my home, I think I’d weep with gratitude. I feel committed to it.”

Due to social distancing, Community Servings limits the number of volunteers in the kitchen, even as it prepares 2,500 meals per day for ongoing clients as well as new outlets through the Boston Resiliency Fund. Those new partners include the Boys & Girls Clubs of Dorchester and West End House Boys & Girls Club.

“There’s been a surge of people wanting to volunteer,” says Brian Hillmer, Community Servings’ executive chef. “We’ve been fortunate to be so supported. But right now, the easiest thing is to donate money.”

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For those who want to help but feel uneasy about leaving the house, executives stress that donations are always welcome. Organizations such as Community Servings rely on financial gifts to stay afloat.

“The most pressing need is additional financial resources. It’s expensive to buy food, feeding the numbers we feed. We don’t know, because of the economy, where resources will come from. We’re OK next month, but where will it come from through summer and fall as the crisis continues? We see gifts anywhere from a few dollars to $250,000 from a foundation. We’re inspired by the generosity, but to keep doing this at this pace, we need support,” says CEO David Waters.

For many people, the currency is also kindness. Mattapan’s Bobby Adams delivers 46 meals per day, five days per week, through the Ethos Meals on Wheels program, based in Jamaica Plain. His deliveries in Hyde Park provide more than food; they’re also a wellness check for elderly, isolated clients.

The organization now gets roughly 200 new referrals per day, says Ethos chief executive Valerie Frias. They once delivered 8,000 meals daily, and they’re now approaching 12,000.

For Adams, though, it’s nothing new. He’s driven this route for 15 years, and many clients have become friends along the way. The only difference is that now he wears protective gear, and he stands 6 feet away to have a friendly chat. He sometimes slips a meal inside the door for clients with a walker who can’t get outside, but then he quickly retreats to the curb. Although the mechanisms have changed, the human connection remains the same.

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“I feel fine about safety. They’re looking forward to seeing me every day,” Adams says. “I have some friends who are afraid, but I protect myself. You’ve got to do what’s necessary to help other people.”


Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.