When poverty hits close to home, it's easier to listen
July 21, 2010 | 07:23 AM
I sat down with someone close to me the other day to look over his finances.
No big problem, but he got caught between jobs and needed a little advice.
The next afternoon I got a call from my friend Pam Ellis at Global Hands in Lake Geneva. She said there was someone I should meet. It was Sally Roth, a volunteer for the Lake Geneva Food Pantry.
It was a nice day so we sat outside. Our conversation put everything in perspective. I realized how close all of us are to the people Sally runs into as a volunteer. A lost job. Too little money in the bank. On the street.
"People think everyone in Lake Geneva is rich," Sally said. "I feel very blessed I have a home, my retirement is secure."
Established in 1983, the Lake Geneva Food Pantry was the first local community-wide food bank and works out of rented space at the First Congregational Church. It currently serves from 500 to 700 people each month.
She sees educated people. She sees people from her previous life as a teacher. She saw a man who was going to live in a tent because he couldn't find work. One man said, "I may be dying of cancer but I'm still hungry." Yet most, she says, aren't bitter — just hungry.
The pantry serves the young, the elderly, single and multi-family members. Many have lost their jobs and homes due to the economy, health issues and seeing their retirement accounts dwindle.
"I have heard stories of people choosing to pay for their medications and then coming to us for food," Sally said.
Others found the distance between one end of the financial spectrum and the others is not that great.
"One attractive, well-groomed professional woman, carrying a Coach purse, told us she has been looking for work since she lost her job, and has no other recourse but to come to the pantry for food," Sally said.
So where does the money come from?
"We receive government commodities once a month, but what we receive is always changing, making it difficult to anticipate our needs," Sally said. "Many of our supporters are especially generous at holiday times, but needs are year round."
They're looking for donated items, of course, but money is even more practical. The reason: Sometimes they get cans and cans of tomatoes, but no rice. In other words, sometimes there's enough of one thing but not of another.
"This morning I worked with an Hispanic family who did not understand why we didn't have any sugar or flour. We usually do," Sally said. "I just had to tell her we were low on money and were doing the best that we could."
Supporters of the pantry include many community churches, service organizations, schools, businesses and individuals. Walmart contributed recently and in May, postal workers collected 8,000 pounds of donations; they gave half to the Lake Geneva food pantry and half to another food pantry.
As we talked, Pam brought out a couple bottled waters. Sally and I sat there amid a warm summer breeze and I felt unusually lucky.
The person I had talked to the night before has a job; his parents provide a safety net. We should all be so lucky. But we're not.
Sally probably doesn't want to appear so prominently in this story. She only works a couple days a month in the pantry and isn't seeking publicity for herself. But every story has to have a face-and the faces of those she helped are too often invisible.
And when the invisible need help, people like Sally have to ask for them.
Halverson is the general
manager of the Regional News.