KENOSHA ⏤ When the pandemic started, volunteers at Grace Welcome Center got together and came to a decision: If they die from doing their work, “So be it.”
Volunteers at the center, located at 2006 60th St. in Kenosha, express seeing working at the pantry as working for the people they love, for the people they care about who may not be sustained otherwise.
In fact, many families have come to depend on Grace and its volunteers to keep them fed due to a lack of other resources or even grocery stores in the Uptown neighborhood.
For instance, if Grace were to close due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Earl, a longtime guest of the welcome center, would have nowhere to turn for groceries, he told the Observer during a recent visit to the center.
On average, in 2019, the pantry saw 90 people a day. The pantry now serves over 600 individuals.
It also serves four times the amount of food it did compared to before the pandemic began.
Volunteers doing 'God's work'
In fact, as the new year begins, the need for food assistance in Kenosha may grow.
However, Joe Falduto, manager of Grace Welcome Center, says it's the volunteers coming to do God’s work that sustain Grace.
“There's a great group of people that volunteer here that want to keep this place going,” he said.
Falduto, born and raised in Kenosha, joined the Grace team after a month of being retired. Now, it has been over a year since he started volunteering.
His volunteering at Grace all began when his wife took him to an informational meeting about how to help at the pantry, he said. With a background in catering and a natural love for cooking, Falduto recalls feeling like God was showing him his purpose in life.
He was determined to start cooking for Grace the very next day.
Younger volunteers, breakfast changes
When the pandemic first began, many original volunteers were at high risk of catching COVID-19 and couldn’t volunteer anymore.
As a result, others in the community have stepped up, Falduto said, including three teens from St. Mary’s Lutheran Church. All three have been volunteering since the pandemic started.
Before COVID-19, every Thursday and Friday Falduto cooked for the guests as they mingled amongst each other and enjoyed bottomless coffee in another room.
Now, the breakfast is served in takeout boxes to guests outside the building, to take precautions against the spread of COVID-19.
The pantry has had to make some changes as well.
The pantry went from being a proud choice pantry serving 40-50 families per week to now serving approximately 190 families per week with not as many choices. Guests used to be able to shop for their food, but now the volunteers put together boxes of food and produce that are handed out to families on Tuesdays.
New food sources for the pantry, such as government food programs, have come about since the pandemic; however, they are often quickly used up due to the level of need in the local community.
More volunteers needed
For anyone who has visited the pantry in recent months, it’s clear: Grace’s resources are in high demand.
While Grace has a faithful group of helpers, more volunteers are still needed, Falduto said, especially on Tuesdays when Grace holds their pantry day.
Volunteers are much appreciated, he said, because there is a need in the community that hasn’t gone away.
One family even expressed to Rev. Jonathan Barker, Grace Lutheran Church pastor and center co-founder, “Tuesdays never come quick enough,” since the food given to them on Tuesday is gone by Sunday night.
A ‘food cliff’
The pantry is facing what Barker calls a “food cliff” ⏤ where most of the food sources are gone or will be shortened. That’s why donating is an important way to help others, he said.
Even though the resources Uptown once had ⏤ such as the now vacant Pick ‘n Save building at 1901 63rd St. ⏤ are gone, both Barker and Falduto can agree that the need to bring them back is palpable.
Barker would even love to see an Aldi’s or Save A Lot on 63rd St. for the community.
Monetary donations go a long way
For the center, monetary donations can go a long way when it comes to buying food and sustaining Grace.
Consistent donations to the pantry could make all the difference for those in need, and for Grace themselves, Falduto said.
“If you can make a $50 donation, that could buy close to sometimes 2,000 pounds worth of food," Falduto explained.
These donations not only address getting food for the pantry, but also taking care of maintenance on its old building, finished in 1903.
Along with donations from the community, local leaders have also jumped in to assist Grace.
For instance, County Supervisor Andy Berg chose an unconventional method of donating and bringing in items to Grace.
Berg, along with Ald. Dominic Ruffalo and artist Katy Wallner, stood outside in the cold for three days beginning Jan. 18 for the “Freezing For A Reason” event.
Another gracious supporter recently donated all the money to build a walk-in fridge at the pantry. As a result, Grace expects to be able to provide fresh produce and dairy products like never before.
Support from the community is vital to the pantry’s operations. With the scarce amount of food sources in the new year, Grace ⏤ like many around the world ⏤ will depend on its community to help it help them through these hard times.
For the latest updates on what is being served at the pantry and to learn more information about the pantry and how to volunteer, visit the pantry’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/gracewelcomecenter.