A few years ago, when it was apparent there were people in the local community experiencing serious financial distress, members of St. Luke’s, Shelby Twp. wanted to see how they could help.
But they wanted to be smart about how they approached it, too.
Faith Lutheran Church was among other neighboring churches offering food pantries; so St. Luke’s wanted to take it in another direction. Because it doesn’t have the proper facilities to store food, the members noticed they do have another resource.
“We have all this storage space, for general items, so we thought we could store something like this,” Kathy Wise said. “We didn’t want to do what Faith Lutheran or anyone else was doing.”
Instead, the focus was only supplying folks in need with items that are in demand, but often can’t be purchased with limited funds and priorities of whether to pay a bill, buy food, purchase gasoline…
Or get items for personal care.
Items such as toilet paper, paper towels, tissues, dish soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes, bar soap, deodorant, shampoo and conditioner, feminine napkins/tampons, incontinence pads, laundry soap and dryer sheets are collected and distributed to Macomb County residents in need. Last year, nearly 1,000 people benefited from the program.
“We’re concerned with hygiene as a way of maintaining health,” Wise said.
The personal care outreach at St. Luke’s depends greatly on donations. While members of the small church do their part to contribute items and manpower for the weekly distribution effort, word of mouth also helps keep the pantry stocked.
“There’s an older woman, and she comes in once a month and brings all sorts of items,” Wise said. “She just pulls her car up, opens her trunk and always has a ton of items.
“She said, ‘I’ve been looking for some place I can contribute.’ It’s her way of giving back. So we have people like that. Myself, I mentioned it when I went to the doctor’s office. ‘Oh, that’s such a neat idea,’ they would say. And pretty soon, they collected a lot of items for us.”
A $1,000 grant came from the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan in 2015, which helped cover a portion of expenses; St. Luke’s applied for another grant this year. Larry Wise, Kathy’s husband, suggested they keep close tabs of every expense of stocking the pantry, so that making a grant request could be backed by proper documentation.
One of the hardest parts of any sort of pantry program is getting those who need specific items or services to push aside their pride and to admit, out loud, that they need help.
“I understand that,” Wise said. “I’ve had people come in, so embarrassed to be on welfare. We’ve all been there, you know. So I tell them when they get back on their fee, just keep us in mind. And we’ve had people who we have helped return later to donate items.”
Keep in mind, this is not a simple hand-out. In fact, an organized (but simple) intake system allows individuals to come in for themselves or their families. Once the initial work is done, it makes a return trip to the pantry easy for those who need to use it.
Generally, visitors need to show proof of assistance (in Michigan, that is usually from a Bridge Card, which is issued after applying through the state’s Department of Health and Human Services) and another form of identification. A simple survey allows the pantry to know what items are in demand and also provides an opportunity for visitors to have some choice in what they can collect (a privilege not always available for those in need).
Visitors are issued a two-week supply of items; this is available for two months; it then increases to once every four months. This ensures a wider range of people are able to procure the personal care items.
Lately, Wise said she has noticed an influx of refugees from Iraq and Iran. Because she worked as a nurse in Saudi Arabia for five years, Wise said she is able to speak “just enough” Arabic to help. A wide variety of people have visited the St. Luke’s pantry, ranging from the working poor (“we see some young men and women who have that first job but don’t get paid enough,” Wise said), unemployed and the homeless.
Wise can relate to the issues facing the working poor. Growing up in Canada, her father had to scrape together whatever he could to help his parents (who were of retirement age but didn’t have any real financial nest egg.)
“We’d get to that Thursday before payday and would look under cushions, turn the house upside down looking for money or whatever we could,” Wise said. “We didn’t think we were poor, that was part of growing up. So I understand people come here from all sorts of different situations.”