May 22, 2020

Food pantries in Perry and Brown counties offer, receive blessings

Ryan Borden, middle, and Nick Kleaving, left, both members of the Knights of Columbus of St. Isidore the Farmer Parish in Perry County, help fellow parishioner Ramona Gehlausen, manager of the parish’s Martin’s Cloak ministry, distribute food on May 2 at the the parish’s St. Martin campus in Siberia. (Submitted photo)

Ryan Borden, middle, and Nick Kleaving, left, both members of the Knights of Columbus of St. Isidore the Farmer Parish in Perry County, help fellow parishioner Ramona Gehlausen, manager of the parish’s Martin’s Cloak ministry, distribute food on May 2 at the the parish’s St. Martin campus in Siberia. (Submitted photo)

(Editor’s note: Below is the final installment in a series looking at how parishes and organizations with Catholic ties are meeting the increased need for food since the outbreak of the coronavirus and its impact on the economy. See Part 1 and Part 2.)

By Natalie Hoefer

After three weeks of unemployment, a woman finally admits she needs help with food and turns to Martin’s Cloak food pantry in Perry County.

Grateful for food they received from St. Vincent de Paul’s food pantry in Brown County, a family leaves a note saying, “You are the reason we will eat today.”

Across central and southern Indiana, people let go or furloughed from jobs as result of the coronavirus crisis are struggling to feed themselves and their families. Many of them have turned to Catholic-affiliated food pantries for help.

This article highlights how Martin’s Cloak of St. Isidore the Farmer Parish in Perry County and the Brown County Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVdP), a ministry of St. Agnes Parish in Nashville, are feeding the hungry in their respective areas during this time of increased need. (Related: Feeding central and southern Indiana)

‘That’s what we’re here for’

A satellite view of Siberia shows a speck surrounded by the green hills of the Hoosier National Forrest. Zoom out to a radius of 30 miles around the town, and the view changes little, save for farmland to the west.

For 27 years, Martin’s Cloak has been providing food and clothing to those living within this circumference. The ministry is run by St. Isidore the Farmer Parish in Perry County out of the social hall of its St. Martin campus. Volunteers hail from the parish, as well as from the parishes of St. Augustine in Leopold, St. Boniface in Fulda, Holy Cross in St. Croix and St. Meinrad in St. Meinrad.

Located in a northern corner of the oddly-shaped county, the ministry serves those from Crawford, Dubois, Perry and Spencer counties.

“There aren’t other programs in this part,” says Ramona Gehlhausen, manager of Martin’s Cloak. “Most people who come live in the country.”

The pantry, open for three-and-a half hours in the morning on the second and fourth Saturday of each month, typically feeds about 40 families a month. Gehlhausen notes that, while it has not seen an increase in numbers since Gov. Eric Holcomb ordered all but essential businesses to close to stop the spread of the coronavirus, the ministry has seen new faces.

“Normal people who come aren’t leaving their homes,” she says. “I tell them they can bring a proxy to sign for them.”

But with understanding she recognizes that people “do get scared, because you don’t know if someone is a carrier [of COVID-19] but don’t seem like they have anything.”

Martin’s Cloak is a client-choice pantry. Typically, visitors enter the pantry in the social hall of St. Martin Church, sign a form, then indicate on a list what items they need.

To maintain safety guidelines, visitors now drive to the entrance of the pantry and remain in their cars. Gehlhausen hands them the form to sign, then volunteers load into their trunk a box of pre-selected items “to supplement what they already have for two weeks,” she says.

While this process temporarily removes the freedom of choice, “Clients are surprised by the amount [of food] they’re getting,” Gehlhausen notes. “They’re surprised they get a box rather than a few bags.”

She recalls one woman who visited the pantry after three weeks without employment. She told Gehlhausen, “I just can’t do it anymore.”

“I told her she didn’t need to do it alone,” says the Martin’s Cloak manager. “That’s what we’re here for.”

She says those who come are “happy because we’re still distributing food.

“They are very appreciative. We get blessed a lot. Almost every car or truck, they say ‘God bless you.’ At the end of day you’ve been blessed so much.”

Gehlhausen says she and the Martin’s Cloak volunteers already feel blessed in their efforts.

“It’s wonderful to know you can make that much difference in someone’s life,” she says. “For maybe a week or two, they don’t have to add food to their worries.”

‘Transformative for our community’

Nestled among the hills of Brown County, about five miles northeast of Nashville is Catholic Youth Organization’s (CYO) Camp Rancho Framasa, where youths and adults alike go for faith-filled fun.

And across the road from the camp is the Brown County St. Vincent de Paul Society’s (SVdP) warehouse and food pantry, where those in need go for food.

The organization is run by St. Agnes Parish, the only parish in the county. According to the Brown County SVdP website, their client choice food pantry distributes food to approximately 195 families—an average of 600 individuals—per month. During a typical month, more than 7,000 pounds of food is distributed.

Since the impact of the coronavirus on the economy, the ministry is now reaching an additional 100 families—but not necessarily at the food pantry.

“Rather than activity at the pantry increasing, we’ve had to go into a mode of trying to come up with ways to reach out to people, because people are somewhat traumatized [by the pandemic] and trying to maintain social distance,” says Shirley Boardman. She serves as secretary of the Brown County SVdP, board and is also responsible for development and grant writing for the organization.

For example, the pantry now provides food to families with children participating in the county’s Head Start program. Rather than requiring them to come to the pantry, the food is distributed to the families by the Head Start bus as it makes its route.

The food pantry is also providing bags of food for distribution at Sprunica Elementary School in Nineveh, where free breakfast and lunch is offered to children under the age of 18 on weekdays.

Another new form of outreach is delivering food to those living in Brown County’s three senior apartment units.

“The senior folks are trying to be careful, so they’re not coming out to the pantry,” says Boardman. “So we are really making sure they have what they need by taking deliveries to them.”

The Brown County Community YMCA has partnered with SVdP to make this possible.

While the YMCA facility is closed due to state orders to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, its CEO, Kim Robinson, “has dedicated her extra time and energy to filling in needs, often by doing things herself”—such as taking food deliveries to proxies for those living in the senior apartments, says Boardman.

Robinson, who also helps lead Brown County’s Community Organizations Active in a Disaster group, offered the YMCA facility for the pantry’s “pop-up” food distribution event.

“We prepared in advance 100 bags of food to be staged at the YMCA,” with help from the Nashville United Methodist Church and TRIAD, a local community volunteer group, Boardman says. “Together we distributed 70 of those bags,” then took the remainder “to Sprunica Elementary for distribution during their emergency meal program. … Our relationships are deepening with all our community partners”.

In addition to enhanced partnerships, another benefit to the food pantry—and thus to those in need in Brown County— as food needs increase is the possibility to purchase a walk-in cooler/freezer unit, thanks to a $20,000 Rapid Response Fund grant awarded by the Brown County Community Foundation. The organization oversees distribution of the emergency funds, made possible by Lilly Endowment, Inc.

“We had been floating the idea of purchasing [a cooler/freezer unit] for five years, but never could put our shoulder into the project until the need became so vivid during [the coronavirus] crisis,” she said. “We are so grateful to the foundation.”

The food pantry currently uses 15 residential refrigerators, and Camp Rancho Framasa’s freezer for overflow.

Having their own freezer/cooler would “allow us to receive bulk donations, which we have difficulty accepting now,” she says.

Is all of the extra effort paying off in meeting the increased food needs? Boardman offers a story in response.

When three new clients signed up one day in April for help from the food pantry, one family left the following note:

“Dear St. Vincent [de Paul Society], “We can’t thank you enough—especially now. You are the reason we will eat today. Bless you all!”

“This story is not going to stop soon,” says Boardman. “The way our Catholic community is reaching out and providing leadership and partnerships with others—this work is transformative in our community.” †

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