Saturday, April 9, 2011

Assessing success — surveying the challenges ahead


Except for the simple things in life, nothing good is ever easy. And so it has been with the food pantry at the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative Friendship Center.

Not easy, but it has been a very good thing.

As I write this on April 9, we have been open for seven weeks. In that time we have served 27, 14, 36, 21, 65, 53, and 55 households. Notice how the last three weeks have doubled and tripled the numbers of the earlier weeks.

Many good things stand out: Great volunteers; a great working relationship with our various partners, including the Berkshire Community Action Council and the Western Mass Food Bank; the development of solid and effective procedures to serve our friends who visit; and perhaps most of all — for want of a better way of putting it — a spiritual, friendly and loving attitude in our service.

Our next Interfaith Action Initiative meeting will be held on Friday, April 15, at 10 a.m. at the First Baptist Church of North Adams (use Eagle Street entrance). At this meeting, we will discuss what has been going well in our food pantry operation and what could be improved. So far, I can say we’ve been doing great.

But as the crowd of visitors the last three weeks — and the photo below, taken today — indicates, we need to find ways of getting more food. Whether this consists of getting more from the Western Mass. Food Bank through BCAC, I don’t know. For one thing, we need to find out what impact the federal budget deal will have on our supply of food in the short- and mid-term.

It’s occurred to me that while we would not have too difficult a time in finding an adequate number of volunteers to open a second time on Wednesdays, in the evening, we absolutely would not have enough food.

Opening more hours is, I think, at least six months to a year away.

I can see several fronts we may want to discuss taking preliminary action on:

1). Increasingly surveying and working with local supermarkets to get food. In addition, looking at national sources of food, such as applying directly to companies. We also may want to look at working with companies to get needed items such as diapers and toiletries. And there is the matter of the upcoming annual Post Office food drive in May. (Al Nelson has been looking into this and can give us a report).

2). Setting up a network with local houses of worship in which they periodically take up collections of money and food for us. This could also be a source of volunteers.

3). We also will probably want someone to start looking into grants and writing grant applications for funds. (If we can use funds to buy food from the Food Bank at reduced cost, that would also be a good fundaising pitch.)

I know some of you are particularly interested in each of these areas. Perhaps we can discuss creating a task force for each.

Other food pantry issues that we may discuss on Friday include further needs for the Friendship Center, such as a computer; parking for volunteers; possibly making a visit to the Food Distribution Center just opened in Bennington by their Interfaith group; ways to give our visitors an updated idea each week of what foods are available for them; and my discussions with the Berkshire County Superior Court probation department.

When it comes to the Interfaith Action Initiave itself we may want to start looking into a larger location for the Friendship Center. I’m very happy with where we are now, but eventally we will need a larger space and the idea was that this would be a temporary location for our services center. I know that the city and Catholic Charities, among others are quite interested in this issue, but I do not know the status of discussions.

Naturally, people first were interested in if and how we would get the Friendship Center food pantry off the ground. Now that we have proven we are up to the task, we need to keep with the original vision. Plus, frankly, finding a larger space right in the downtown that we can afford is not going to be easy. All the more reason to start looking into it now — and looking for grant funding.

At Friday’s meeting, I imagine we will also check in on how to move forward with further study of preserving and expanding the Williamstown church voucher system. And our moment of silence and prayer will be important, too. In fact, our prayer before the Friendship Center’s doors open is a signature part of what it’s all about. Personally, it reminds me why I’m there and how I want to respond to every situation during those three hours the front door is open.


A few notes of interest.

• Last Sunday, Dave Babcock, of First Baptist in North Adams, held his Sunday School class in the Friendship Center. I opened the door for him and his class. When I came back to lock up, there was a 134-pound donation of food in numerous bags!

• When I came in the next day, there was also a 35-pound donation of food from the Congregational and Methodist churches in North Adams!

• Thanks to Shriley Davis’ son Bob, who last Wednesday anchored the shelves we have in back to the wall. That is the second task he has done for us.

• Don’t forget the Northern Berkshire Neighbors awards event on Wednesday, April 13, at Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, which is located at 53 Lois St. in North Adams. Lois Street is the second left past Stop and Shop heading west toward Williiamstown. There will be an opening reception at 5 p.m., with refreshments and a chance to visit with others. Mayor Alcombright will help with the award ceremony, which will begin at 5:15 p.m. and ending about 6:15 p.m.

We will receive a recognition certificate that we can hang up in the Friendship Center. I won’t be able to attend because of work. But I hope someone will take photos, as I would like to post one or more here.

God Bless all of you,


Photos: top: During a lull on April 6, are (l-r) volunteers Wendy Lyons, Erik Wobus, Denise Krutiak and, at the desk, Sue Walker. Below: Taken April 9, this photo shows the diminished amount of food that was left after we closed the doors on Wednesday. The boxes under the first shelf used to hold lots of extra food. They don’t anymore.

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