September 7, 2012

A heart to help

‘God’s hand’ guides parishes, volunteers to open new pantry to feed people in need

St. Thomas Aquinas parishioner Mark Varnau of Indianapolis has led the efforts of five parishes and 75 volunteers to create a new St. Vincent de Paul Society food pantry that is already helping feed about 500 Indianapolis families a month. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

St. Thomas Aquinas parishioner Mark Varnau of Indianapolis has led the efforts of five parishes and 75 volunteers to create a new St. Vincent de Paul Society food pantry that is already helping feed about 500 Indianapolis families a month. (Photo by John Shaughnessy) Click for a larger version.

By John Shaughnessy

At 78, Mark Varnau usually does 40 pushups to start his day, but on this morning he skipped that exercise ritual to load 5,000 pounds of frozen meat, canned vegetables and other items for the food pantry for the poor that he directs.

Actually, Varnau wasn’t alone in loading the supply from Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana. The longtime member of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Indianapolis did have help—from one other person.

“Mark was going out to Gleaners all by himself and picking up that stuff,” says Doug McClellan, 66, a member of Christ the King Parish in Indianapolis. “I told him I’d go out there with him. He works his rear end off. He works until we get it all loaded up. I’m younger than he is, and I had to stop and take a break once in a while. He never stopped. I don’t know how he does it.”

Yet, even Varnau’s loading prowess doesn’t compare to the monumental effort he has led in the past 15 months to create a new St. Vincent de Paul Society food pantry for people in need on the north side of Indianapolis.

Named Boulevard Place, the new pantry opened in early August, and it’s already on track to serve about 500 families a month. It’s also a collaborative venture of five Indianapolis parishes—St. Thomas Aquinas, Christ the King, Immaculate Heart of Mary, St. Joan of Arc and St. Luke the Evangelist—a venture that Varnau started in June of 2011.

At the time, the food pantry had been located for nearly 30 years in a small, below-street-level room at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish. There was no convenient parking or adequate freezer and refrigerator space. The pantry was also only accessible by outdoor steps that became treacherous in rainy and wintry conditions.

Varnau dreamed of a bigger, better and safer location with room for parking—and found a possible site that was for rent on the northwest corner of 42nd Street and Boulevard Place. The grandfather of 12 shared his dream with the food pantry’s steering committee and the five parishes. And people responded in a way that even Varnau never expected.

“God’s hand had to be in it,” he says. “People just thought the cause was great, and they were willing to help. I’ve wept many times because of the generosity of people.”

After parishioners from the five parishes made enough donations to make the dream seem a possibility, an anonymous donor contributed $100,000 that made the purchase of the building a reality. A furnace and air conditioning unit were also donated, part of $100,000 of “in-kind” contributions that included plumbing, painting and providing legal services to open the two-story building to help others.

Still, the need continues for ongoing expenses, including utility bills, food from Gleaners and personal hygiene items, Varnau says. Those contributions sustain the pantry while the generosity sustains him and the 75 volunteers who help at the facility.

“People came in and said, ‘What do you need?’ and they did it,” Varnau says. “People volunteered. We didn’t have to ask. We’ve just been very, very fortunate.”

Varnau’s own good fortune led him to become involved in the food pantry in 1990.

“I was able to retire early from Hook’s Drugs,” says the father of six who has been married for 55 years to Ann. “I was vice president of marketing. I was home for a few weeks and decided I wanted to do something with St. Vincent de Paul. The next week, there was a notice in the parish bulletin about needing someone to take over.

“I’ve just always liked the concept of helping people who, through no fault of their own, need help. I just wanted to do some grunt work. I was raised on a farm outside of Kokomo so physical labor doesn’t scare me.”

Twenty-two years later, the “grunt work” continues. So does the joy.

“Watching this all come together has really been exciting,” Varnau says about the new pantry. “There have been times when I’ve been tired putting it all together, but then I come down here and get pumped up all again—because it’s good for the clients.”

Because of the new freezer and refrigerator space, clients—who have to live within the geographical area of the five parishes—get to choose from a selection of beef, poultry and pork. They also have been able to pick fresh produce that has included lettuce, tomatoes, bell peppers and sweet potatoes.

“We do client-choice shopping just like in a grocery store,” Varnau says. “They get to come once a month. They can pick what they want.”

On this day, a grandfather whose first name is Carey shops during one of 10 time slots each week that the pantry is open. He’s there to get food to help feed his daughter—recently divorced and looking for work—and her children, who are living with him.

“I’m a dad,” he says. “You’ve got to do what you have to do to feed your family. It’s the first time I’ve ever been here. The help is amazing. It’s needed because there are a lot of hungry people out here.”

A mother named Kim fills her shopping cart with a package of chicken, canned vegetables, a bag of flour, cookies, bell peppers and juice.

“It’s really nice to have this here,” she says. “Their hospitality is great. It’s nice to be able to go someplace when you need help.”

Kim shopped during the evening of the same day that Varnau helped load 5,000 pounds of food in the morning. He’s still there when she selects her food items. Noticing that the line of people waiting to shop is longer than usual, he scurries through the pantry, replenishing the shelves.

In the midst of another busy day, Varnau takes a break to say, “The Gospel says we need to help others. There’s a great quote from the Bible that I like and that I use in all my thank you letters. It’s from Isaiah 58:10, I think.”

Later, he provides the Scripture verse, ‘If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noon day.”

Moments later, Varnau is on the move again, stocking food, welcoming people, pouring his heart out for others.

(Anyone wanting to make a donation to Boulevard Place can send it to Boulevard Place/St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry, 4202 Boulevard Place, Indianapolis, IN 46208.)

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