Mashpee food pantry thrives on hope and help

By Kenneth J. Souza
Anchor Staff

MASHPEE, Mass. — In what has become a typical Wednesday morning routine for Deacon Frank Fantasia, he begins sorting through cartons of milk and bottles of orange juice in preparation for the line of people that is  about to come through the parish hall.

When he spots a familiar young woman with her infant son in tow, he eagerly discards that morning’s “breakfast” — a hastily eaten apple — to warmly greet her.

“That’s one of our success stories,” he later confides to The Anchor, explaining how the young woman first came to the weekly food pantry about a year ago for help and has since gone back to school and is now working to support her child.

“To me, this is real Church,” Fantasia added. “This is what we’re supposed to be doing.”

The food pantry operation at Christ the King Parish that runs from 9 a.m. to noon every Wednesday and every other Wednesday evening from 5 to 7 p.m. is unlike similar parish ministries in that clients aren’t obligated to stand in long lines to collect their provisions. Instead, everyone is welcomed to sit and wait at tables inside the parish hall that provide a café-like atmosphere where they can enjoy a cup of coffee and chat with fellow clients or volunteers from the parish St. Vincent de Paul Society.

“That’s another way for them to maintain their dignity,” said Deb Journalist, director of needy cases for SVdP. “They can sit there and enjoy the camaraderie and talk with people and enjoy a coffee. It’s taken years to achieve that atmosphere, but now it’s really a happy place.”

When a client’s number is called, they then receive a shopping cart filled with bags of groceries prepared by volunteers. Before leaving, they can also pick from an assortment of breads and other staples.

“In the packing room, they have order forms and, depending on the size of the family, they fill the shopping bags with (groceries),” Fantasia said. “Then they come out here and this is what we call our free table. We have a little bit of everything — cakes, fruits, vegetables, and frozen foods. They can take whatever they want from here.”

“Our food pantry is non-denominational,” he added. “You don’t have to be Catholic and we’re not looking to convert anyone — we’re just trying to feed people, plain and simple.”

According to Dick Reilly, who has overseen the Christ the King food pantry operation since 2004, the bulk of the food is now purchased from the Greater Boston Food Bank.

“When we first started, we were buying half of the food from outside sources,” Reilly said. “But now they have all the food that we need at about half the price. We get 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of food a week for about $1,200. When you do the math, we get about a 10 times return on our dollar.”

Noting that the food pantry serves about 100 families every week, Reilly said they try to provide enough food so a family can have three meals a day for at least five days during the week.

“It’s supposed to be once a month, but we’re very liberal with that,” he said. “They can come every week if they need to. I don’t think we’ve ever turned anyone away.”

“The average family size is three people, so that’s 300 people we’re feeding every week,” Fantasia said. “This really helps them, because they can probably save a couple of hundred bucks a week; that’s $800 a month that they can use instead to pay rent, electricity and the other necessities of life.”

On this particular Wednesday morning, the sprawling parish center of the Christ the King Parish complex is a beehive of activity as hundreds of volunteers — most of whom are members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society — scurry about filling up orders, serving coffee, chatting to clients, and addressing their needs.

“We have about 300 volunteers who help in a variety of ways,” Fantasia said. “A lot of our volunteers don’t get out of Mass until 9 a.m., so we really start getting busy between 9:30 and 10 a.m.”

In addition to the many parishioners who volunteer, Fantasia said the food pantry wouldn’t be a success without the support of pastor Msgr. Daniel F. Hoye, who allows the St. Vincent de Paul Society to use the parish facilities.

“We’re very lucky that we’re able to use the parish hall and facilities here,” Fantasia said. “My dream one day is to have a dedicated facility, but it’s so expensive. The parish has been wonderful. They don’t charge us rent for the space and we get heat, lights and power included.”

“Our pastor is wonderful to us,” agreed Kathleen Mulherin, SVdP president. “He lets us use this building — and we use the whole building — every week at no charge. He is very supportive.”

Among the other ministries that SVdP provides, according to Mulherin, is something known as “Needy Cases,” where individual clients meet with case workers to help them better understand and meet their financial needs.

“We have appointments or walk-ins many times — men and women who come in and need assistance, or just to talk about what’s going on in their lives,” Mulherin said. “We meet in a private room where we can talk to them. We try to see them on Wednesdays because we find if we get them in and they see the food pantry, and what a happy place it is, and how much food they can get, then they’ll come back and save money by using our food pantry.”

According to Deb Journalist, the ultimate objective of meeting with the clients is to help them help themselves.

“We’re not here to enable them, we’re not here to support them financially,” she said. “We’re here to help them in an emergency situation to guide them and teach them how to take care of themselves. Oftentimes just sitting with someone and showing them how to budget can help. It’s amazing how many people don’t know how to budget and they don’t see places where they could save.”

While Cape Cod is often viewed as an affluent area, Journalist said people need only to look at the level of unemployment and homelessness in Hyannis over the last decade to appreciate the reality of the situation.

“I ran a business on Main Street in Hyannis for 10 years and watched the deterioration and the increase in the homeless population,” she said. “It wasn’t that they didn’t want to work, it’s that there just weren’t any jobs for them. They would line up where temporary jobs were given out and the line would be stretching out across the parking lot. It was so sad. That’s partly why I’m here doing what I do, because I don’t want to see that continue.”

During this Jubilee Year of Mercy, Deacon Fantasia said adhering to the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy and following the example of Pope Francis is what all Catholics are called to do.

“This is exactly what Pope Francis wants us to do, and he keeps preaching that, and I think these people recognize that,” he said. “We’ve got a good crew here, we laugh a lot, but we’ve all got the same objective, mission and focus: to help these people.”

“This work is really rewarding to me, because it’s so hands on,” Reilly agreed. “It’s not just a matter of writing a check, we’re actually helping people.”

“It’s all about breaking the cycle of poverty,” added Mulherin. “The thing that makes me the happiest about being involved with the St. Vincent de Paul Society is knowing that door is always open, and when someone walks through it, there are several people here inside the building who are joyfully willing to help. It’s wonderful.”

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