Jon Robertson had been an executive at the Bank of St. Elizabeth for over a decade when a member of the nearby First Baptist Church dropped by his office.
“She said they were looking for some help with the food pantry they had going,” Mr. Robertson recalled. “I’m ashamed to say, I had no idea what she was talking about.”
Turns out, volunteers from First Baptist had been operating the Visions Unlimited Food Pantry inside their church for 20 years.
Mr. Robertson, who is a member of Immaculate Conception parish in Loose Creek, and his sons decided to visit the food pantry, located just outside St. Elizabeth.
“I was blown away by what they were working to accomplish with not a lot of resources,” he recalled.
Members were sorting food onto the pews and welcoming people into their sanctuary to pick it up.
Back in town, Mr. Robertson started asking people if they had heard about the food pantry.
“Nobody really knew what was going on, that the people at First Baptist were trying to carry out this mission on their own, and that it was growing faster than what their smaller congregation could support.”
It was time for some serious Christian collaboration.
Word began circulating among members of St. Lawrence parish in St. Elizabeth and other nearby Catholic congregations.
Parishioners, Knights of Columbus and other people around town wanted to help.
Catholics and Baptists worked together to form an independent nonprofit corporation known as Helping Hands of Central Missouri.
The board consists of First Baptist’s pastor, a local bank vice-president, a retired electrical contractor, a local insurance broker, an employee of the local bank, a retired local poultry producer, and a retired state employee.
“We come at this from the standpoint of our faith and our relationship with God,” stated a board member who is a member of St. Anthony parish in St. Anthony.
“But it is truly a community effort that is not directly affiliated with one church or another,” the board member said. “We help people, regardless of their denomination.”
The board considered buying and outfitting a mobile home to serve as the pantry’s new headquarters but quickly aspired to something larger and more substantial.
A local accountant helped the board write a Missouri Department Economic Development grant request to help pay for an 80-by-100-foot permanent building.
First Baptist donated 0.63 acres of its property at 784 Highway 52.
The building was completed in 2014.
Half of it houses the food pantry, including a walk-in freezer and cooler, an open area for assembling food packages, and a separate room for clients to sign in and wait for their food.
The food pantry is open on the third Monday of each month and by appointment.
The other half contains a thrift store that is open three days a week to the public.
The store contains beautifully displayed, modestly priced clothing, shoes, home furnishings, toys, books and collectibles.
Proceeds from the store pay for the building’s maintenance and utilities.
Volunteers from St. Elizabeth parish, First Baptist and other faith groups work side by side at both ends of the operation.
They sort and wash the donated clothing and shoes in a workroom and then price it and creatively display it on the selling floor.
The store is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Mondays (1 to 7 p.m. on third Mondays of the month), 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Thursdays and from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays.
Regular shoppers drive for miles to find bargains at the thrift store’s regularly rotating merchandise.
Local families who experience a disaster such as a fire can submit a request for assistance, which would allow them to shop for clothes and household items at the thrift store, free of charge.
All who hunger
The food pantry distributes packaged and fresh food to an average of 180 families — about 400 people — per month.
Clients receive a computerized identification card showing that they live within Helping Hands’s four-county service area and are eligible for services.
Several board members said they had no idea how many people are in need in their community until they started trying to help.
“You kind of feel ashamed, to be honest with you, to find out that there are so many people struggling,” said Mr. Robertson.
Many of the clients just need a boost in order to get through a difficult time such as a temporary job loss.
Others are weathering massive obstacles to working their way out of poverty and need longer-term assistance.
Some are elderly and trying to make it on Social Security alone.
Board members are convinced that many more people in the area need help but are embarrassed to come forward to ask for it.
The volunteers offer no judgment, only help.
One regular volunteer said health issues about 10 years ago put her in a position to have to ask for help.
She and her family got what they needed, so she’s passing that help along.
“Give them something”
The food pantry is impressive.
Volunteers stock the food pantry, welcome guests, staff the monthly assembly line and carry the boxes to people’s cars.
About 20 volunteers work on distribution days.
Much of the food comes from the Food Bank for Central & Northeastern Missouri, headquartered in Columbia.
Sam’s Club in Jefferson City donates surplus bread, cakes, frozen meals and some meat and fresh vegetables, which a volunteer transports to the pantry every Friday morning.
Volunteers sort, repack and store that food in the cooler and freezer.
Local pork producers donate meat to be processed into sausage for distribution to the food pantry’s clients.
The local Knights of Columbus council donates hams, turkeys or other meats for special occasions such as Christmas and Thanksgiving.
Helping Hands is also making use of a one-year, possibly renewable grant from the Miller County Health Department to help pay for meat and fresh vegetables.
A board member noted that it’s difficult to get healthy, nutritious foods into many people’s homes because they don’t have a deep-freeze to store it.
“It’s always a juggling act — to give them enough to eat without overwhelming them with it,” the board member stated.
Looking to expand
Helping Hands is running out of space.
Volunteers have had to get creative about storing donated items as they work to help an increasing number of people seeking help.
The board is raising money to pay for a $200,000, 3,100-square-foot addition, providing more retail and storage space for the donated clothing and higher-ticket items such as furniture.
“A larger building would allow us to display more items at any given time, accept and display more furniture than we can now accommodate, and increase the benefit to the multiple communities that we now serve,” a board member stated.
From near and far
The back of the volunteers’ T-shirts says, “Volunteers do not necessarily have the time. They have the heart.”
Food pantry volunteers come from Loose Creek, Meta, St. Anthony, St. Elizabeth and Tuscumbia.
Most of the thrift store volunteers come from St. Elizabeth, although some travel from Folk, Koeltztown, Loose Creek, Meta, St. Anthony and Tuscumbia.
Ten people from St. Elizabeth volunteer in both the food pantry and the thrift store, as do seven people from St. Anthony, two from Tuscumbia, and two from Meta.
Members of St. Elizabeth R-IV School’s Future Business Leaders of America chapter, the National Honor Society, the St. Anthony 4-H chapter and the Catholic Youth Organizations in St. Anthony and St. Elizabeth occasionally help stock food and fill orders.
No volunteer or board member receives a salary.
“Without these great volunteers, this thing is nothing,” one of the board members stated.
There’s always a need for more volunteers to help with the food pantry and thrift store operations and to add to the pool of experience and perspective.
The volunteers enjoy each other’s company and are always happy to expand the circle of fellowship.
“The more the merrier!” a member of the board stated.