Doors and hearts flew wide open at the new Catholic Charities Center in Jefferson City the morning of March 25.
A Grand Opening celebration for the client-choice food pantry and the agency’s first-ever Community Resource Fair drew hundreds to the spacious landmark, headquarters for Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri (CCCNMO).
The aromas of fresh produce and new recipes filled the reception area and food pantry, located within walking distance of 400 homes served by the Jefferson City Housing Authority.
Upstairs, in the community room that only weeks ago served as an overnight warming shelter for people without homes, representatives from Catholic Charities and other health and social service agencies visited with clients and with each other.
“It’s been really fun,” said Lori Stoll, CCCNMO food programs coordinator, who organized the fair.
“I think the agencies that participated and the neighbors who came here to avail themselves of the pantry have been excited about the services and just being able to be a part of the community again,” she stated.
Visitors toured the food pantry, set up their memberships, shopped for food, took part in food safety demonstrations and sampled meals cooked from ingredients on the pantry shelves.
Catholic Charities personnel filled about 75 food orders and sent about 2,000 pounds of food home with pantry members in a three-hour period.
The 28 organizations represented at the Community Resource Fair helped more than 100 people learn about and sign up for available services to help support their families.
“This is just the beginning, and what a beginning it was!” stated CCCNMO Communication Director Ashley Wiskirchen.
She said it was also an exciting day for the Catholic Charities staff, which had moved into the renovated and expanded building this past winter in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Afghan refugee crisis and an unprecedented proliferation of programs and partnerships.
“We’ve gone through a tremendous time of growth and rolling-out of new services,” she said. “We haven’t had much time to pause and celebrate. It’s great to be able to do that now.”
Balloons, decorations, door prizes, and an upbeat crowd helped generate a convivial atmosphere for the Community Services Fair.
CCCNMO Mobile Resource Coordinator John Doyle answered quesions and handed out literature from a table near the end of the room.
“Everybody’s coming together as a community,” he said. “A lot of people are coming by to learn about the services we offer who weren’t here before.”
Pantry member Cyndi Cushman, who lives nearby, beamed with excitement during the festivities.
Having signed up as a food-pantry member during the “soft opening” in late January, she said she’s fortunate enough to have a car, so she can give some of her neighbors a ride.
“I can’t stand by and see people doing without,” she said. “A lot of people don’t have food. I bring food to my house whenever I have to. And if there’s something I can’t use, I share it with others.”
She said the pantry’s client-choice model is helpful.
“You can pick what you need and don’t waste anything,” she said.
Under one roof
CCCNMO Executive Director Dan Lester was amazed at the number of people at the grand opening and resource fair.
“To have the community come together, the folks who need the services, who want the services, who are looking for the services — it’s been really fantastic,” he said.
He was happy that the pantry staff had undertaken a “soft opening” to learn and fine-tune the procedures and make sure everything was working right.
“We wanted it to all be smooth and efficient and effective so that even on a day like today, we could be successful,” he said.
In the six weeks leading up to the grand opening, the pantry served more than 600 individuals (240 families), who took home more than 18,000 pounds of food to their families.
It also gave the staff more time to get to know some of the neighbors.
“We see people here today who have been shopping with us and visiting with us for a couple of months now,” said Mr. Lester. “And because of the system we’ve put into place where people can come and shop more than once a month, we know that a lot of people are here looking for fresh produce and for new items we might have gotten since they were here a week ago.
“But they’re also coming in just to say hi to our staff that they’re getting to know,” he said.
That was always part of the dream.
“When we learned that we’d have access to this space and we’d be able to serve our neighbors in need right here in our local neighborhood, we knew we wanted to be more than just ‘here’s some food and we’ll see you later,’” he said.
“We wanted to be good neighbors and good friends and have fellowship and genuine encounter.”
“Give them something to eat”
Located at 1015 Edmonds St. in Jefferson City, the food pantry is open every Monday and Wednesday from 4 to 7 p.m. and every Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
It allows members to choose foods that are familiar, fresh and culturally appropriate in a grocery-store setting that honors the dignity of each client, encourages healthy food choices, reduces food waste and provides learning opportunities and community-building experiences.
“This area in particular is part of a low-resource community,” said Ms. Stoll. “A lot of people in this area don’t have transportation.
“Our being here allows them access by walking,” she stated, “and it’s easy to catch a ride if you’re just going down the street with another neighbor rather than all the way downtown or across town to get to the other pantries that are there.”
Ms. Stoll deemed the Community Resource Fair a clear success.
“Especially since COVID,” she said, “services have changed, and the key players have changed. I’m really excited, and our agencies are excited to be able to get together, to see what each of us has to offer, and what we can do to help our neighbors in need.
“I really wanted all of us to be able to put faces with the names, with each other, with all of us who offer resources for the community, and for the community members, our neighbors, to be able to see that,” she said.
She hopes to repeat the resource fair once or twice a year, “if that’s what the community wants.”
“We’re so excited to use that space in our building and offer it to people to showcase any services they are willing to help the community with,” she said.
Faith in the marketplace
“You all have a blessed day,” Ms. Cushman, one of the clients, told the staff. “I really appreciate everything you’re doing. Thank you for helping us all out!”
Sister Kathleen Wegman of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, CCCNMO’s director of mission integration, said God was conspicuously present throughout the event.
“The volume of people attending the open house gave a profound experience of the reality that we are all one family, looking after one another as Jesus calls us to do,” she said. “We really are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.”
Mr. Lester asked for continued prayers for all of the people who work at Catholic Charities: “for us all to be able to recognize the face of God in everyone we’re able to serve”; and for everyone who is in need: “that they would all have access to this kind of care, love and support.”
CCCNMO, an entity of the Diocese of Jefferson City, responds to the needs of people in 38 counties regardless of faith, culture or situation.
This includes services for refugees and immigrants, those with food insecurity, mental health needs, health and nutrition education, basic household, and shelter needs.
Catholic Charities is a partner of The Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri, which provides food to partner pantries at no cost.
The food pantry and all Catholic Charities Health & Nutrition Services programming receives support from the Community Health Improvement Services program of SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital.
Support for the agency’s SmartChoice online inventory and ordering software has been provided by the United Way of Central Missouri’s Community Support Grant program.
For more information about how to donate or volunteer, visit cccnmo.diojeffcity.org.