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Small outdoor pantries offer help during tough times

FREMONT, Neb. (AP) – At first, you might think StoneBridge Christian Church has an oversized mailbox.

But look closer and you’ll see a small cupboard atop a post.

Filled with items like spaghetti sauce and soup, the wooden box is stationed in the Fremont church’s front yard at 1041 N. Nye Ave.

The StoneBridge Fremont Food Pantry is designed to help folks, who just need a little extra help to get through these financially tough times.

About two weeks ago, the Fremont campus of the multi-site Christian church installed the pantry, which offers free food at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has caused so much economic hardship.

Anyone can access the pantry at any time and take what they need – no questions asked. Volunteers regularly monitor and restock the pantry.

The Fremont Tribune reports that Beth Dorcey Riley, a North Bend native, came up with the idea after seeing a need in the midtown neighborhood of Aksarben in Omaha, where she lives.

Before COVID, the single mom and her son, Garrett, were helping to feed children from another single-mother family a couple nights a week.

Riley also lives across from a school where many children receive free or reduced-price lunches. She wondered how they’d fare during the summer and while being taught remotely during the pandemic – especially with so many people out of work.

Riley knew little, free pantries were available in other parts of the country.

So a friend and a neighbor joined forces and built a pantry in Riley’s front yard for her birthday in August. Her pantry looks like a large bookshelf with doors on a post in the ground.

“After the first month, it was shocking to see that we had served hundreds of people,” she said. “We had distributed over 200 toothbrushes and over 100 jars of peanut butter.”

That didn’t include all the packages of pasta and cans of tuna. Besides food, she’d include feminine hygiene products, shampoo and toilet paper.

A couple of Omaha TV stations featured stories on her pantry in September.

After that, StoneBridge Executive Pastor Mitch Chitwood called and said the church wanted to have pantries at its campuses. Thus far, little pantries have been built at the Benson campus, where Riley attends church, and the Fremont location.

“Our church and the community have started to donate. We have space here at the church for the donations as they come in” said Tim Karges, campus and worship pastor for StoneBridge in Fremont.

One recent morning, Karges was arranging donated nonperishable food items on shelves in the church.

From those shelves, he took several items like, soup and cereal, pasta and peanut butter, and put them on a cart, which he wheeled outside.

The items went into the outdoor pantry, which looks like a little brown house with a white roof.

Karges said volunteers restock the pantry throughout the week.

“As it empties, we have people who refill it,” he said.

Volunteers are trained to check for expiration dates and mark through barcodes to help prevent items from being resold.

People can park in the church parking lot and get needed items from the pantry.

“They just come and take whatever they need, whenever they need it and we’ll just keep replenishing it,” he said.

Karges believes the pantry works well for people who may not need food stamps or government assistance, but they’re just a little short on funds at the end of a week and need some pasta and sauce for an evening meal or bread and peanut butter for sandwiches.

Recipients can take what they need.

“The great thing about the free, little pantries is that people don’t have to have any fear of shame or of needing to provide paperwork – or anything that would make them feel uncomfortable about getting any sort of aid,” Riley said. “It is anonymous and it does take away a lot of the stigma that people might feel in accessing help at a time when many people have never been in this situation where they’ve needed to get help before.”

Recipients come from a variety of situations.

“They might have medical bills that they’ve never had before,” Riley said. “They might be facing job losses they’ve never had before or they just might be feeling the crunch of the economy and this is just a great way they can get a little bit of extra help.”

Karges notes that the little food pantry isn’t meant to take away from the work of organizations like Care Corps” LifeHouse, the Fremont Area United Way or the Salvation Army.

“All of those are amazing organizations and we support all of those, sometimes with volunteers, sometimes financially as a church,ã Karges said. “This (the food pantry) is in addition to those things.”

The small, free pantry is for people, who aren’t to the point where they’re ready to reach out to these organizations. It’s designed to help them get through a temporary situation – like a single mom who’s working two jobs, but is still struggling to feed her family. She can come whenever she needs and discretely get what she needs.

Riley cites an example from her city of a veteran and his wife, who’s on permanent disability, and their two daughters. Recently, the husband got a work promotion and is making a dollar an hour more.

But because of his raise, they lost their food stamp eligibility.

The veteran served his country honorably and his wife is doing a great job caring for the kids, especially when they have remote learning three days one week and two days the next.

“It’s really difficult when they just don’t have quite enough to make it through each month,ã Riley said.

That’s where the free pantry has helped.

Riley said the family is grateful and the wife said this:

“Thank you so much. I hope you guys know that everything you have done for us makes it possible for us to keep believing that there are good people in the world who are willing to help and we really appreciate it.”

Riley said the family has donated items they don’t use and the pantry’s theme is: “Give what you can and take what you need.”

“That works for everyone,ã she said.

Recipients aren’t the only ones who benefit.

It’s an opportunity for neighbors and community members to pitch in and help, especially when people can’t volunteer like they normally would because of the pandemic.

Karges said if people indicate that they need diapers or toothbrushes or other items, the church will see how it can help, bringing along the community and people who want to be involved in the endeavor.

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