By Kenneth J. Souza, Anchor Staff
FALL RIVER, Mass. — If you had to put one thing on Philippe R. Gregoire’s wish list this Christmas, it would be a truck.
Not a tiny, Tonka-type toy under the Christmas tree, mind you, but a full-sized box delivery truck that he could use to transport groceries and provisions from the Boston Food Bank to the food pantry at St. Anne’s Parish.
“We go up there at least three times a month,” Gregoire said. “We rent anywhere between a 17- and a 24-foot truck from a local trucking company and it costs between $150 and $200 every time. We fortunately have a gentleman who drives for us, but we need a truck badly.”
As the coordinator of the weekly food pantry at St. Anne’s Parish since 2006, Gregoire said they came close to getting a $20,000 grant to buy the coveted vehicle just last week through a program sponsored by Wal-Mart.
Although the St. Anne’s site was selected as one of the 150 national finalists competing for just 75 grant awards, they failed to garner enough online support by the deadline.
“We had to answer a questionnaire and write an essay about the food pantry itself (to qualify),” Gregoire told The Anchor. “Our food pantry happened to be one of 150 that was selected. And we were one of only four from Massachusetts — the others were in Salem, in Boston, and another in Chicopee.”
Despite their best efforts to get the word out about the grant opportunity and the online voting via Facebook — including a front-page article in the local newspaper — Gregoire said they couldn’t muster enough votes.
“Voting ended on December 12 and not enough people voted for us,” he said. “We’re a small city, how can we compete with places like Boston or New York?
“But I was pretty excited that we were one of the top 150. I thought that was pretty impressive. There were thousands of (groups) that applied for this.”
Gregoire remains optimistic that they might still be able to raise the funds on their own to purchase a truck and he hopes the recent media attention might help them with their cause.
“If everyone pitched in, why not?” he said.
It’s clear that Gregoire is passionate about the work he’s been doing since 2006 — overseeing and coordinating the weekly food pantry every Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to noon in the basement of St. Anne’s Church on Middle Street.
Working with a regular group of about 24 dedicated volunteers, ranging in ages from six to 80, Gregoire said they currently serve between 225 and 250 people a week.
“We used to do something similar with the church, but officially we started in 2006,” Gregoire said. “Just this year we got our government authority, so we’re now an official 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.”
And although the need remains great year-round in the area, Gregoire said it’s particularly difficult this time of year to see families going without food.
“We’re open every Saturday, including holidays,” Gregoire said. “We were open on Christmas Day one year, by the way. And we had families show up on Christmas Day.”
Calling this the most “fulfilling” work he’s ever done, Gregoire said the experience has been equally satisfying for his fellow volunteers as well.
“You have parents and kids working together,” he said. “We have four families that come every week with their children to help out. I think it’s important for the kids to see, because that’s the whole idea of the Christian faith — to help other people. These people with their young children are putting that example forward and encouraging them to continue it.”
Although there are some volunteers who come and go — such as the high school students who later venture off to college — Gregoire said there is a core group that remains week after week.
“Usually when people come to help, they stay,” he said.
Not only would the truck come in handy to make those large pick-ups from suppliers in Boston, New Bedford and other locations, but it also could be used to deliver some 500 food bags a month to needy families in the area.
Gregoire said they make regular deliveries to nine high-rise apartment buildings in Fall River alone, and they also bring another 65 bags of groceries to displaced families living in motels in nearby Swansea and Somerset.
Noting that box trucks, be they new or used, are all “very expensive,” Gregoire said he nevertheless remains hopeful — which is appropriate during this season of Advent.
“Whenever I’ve needed any type of help moneywise, God has always come through for me,” he said. “We had to have some repairs done one time where we needed to raise $4,000 and I thought we’d never be able to raise it … but all of a sudden people found out about it and we raised it. We’ve always been fortunate and you can never underestimate the power of prayer.”
For more information about the St. Anne’s Parish Food Pantry or to make a donation to the delivery truck effort, call 508-674-5651.