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Our Mother of Sorrows upgrades its food pantry


For The Dialog

Centreville, Md., parish expands Our Mother’s Pantry giving its clients room to shop for necessities

CENTREVILLE, Md. — Shondra Richardson’s recent grocery shopping trip seemed normal as she pushed her cart through the aisles and selected from a variety of foods and household necessities.

Yet her ordinary shopping experience made it extraordinary.

She was shopping at Our Mother’s Pantry, a food kitchen operated by the outreach ministry of Our Mother of Sorrows Church. Only a few weeks before she received prepacked bags of groceries from pantry volunteers.

 A client greets Ross Camardella, head of the parish outreach ministry, at Our Mother’s Pantry. (Courtesy Our Mother of Sorrows Parish)

A client greets Ross Camardella, head of the parish outreach ministry, at Our Mother’s Pantry. (Courtesy Our Mother of Sorrows Parish)

“We basically can help ourselves [and] choose what we can use and need,” said Richardson, who has a son in high school and works part-time, 20 hours a week. “It feels more natural.”

As customers selected what they wanted or needed with few restrictions outside of the number of specific items, such as two cans of corn or two rolls of toilet paper, pantry officials were surprised by one of the results. “We find that they take less than what we gave them through prepared bags,” said Ross Camardella, who heads the outreach ministry.

The pantry will be dedicated this Sunday after the 9:15 a.m. Mass. The $15,000 upgrade included a new shed built to house what had been stored in the garage; shelving; insulation; conversion of windows into the doorway, and painting.

While a one-car garage sounds unusually small for even a convenience store today, pantry volunteers and customers consider it a massive expansion. Before the move, the pantry operated in a 12-by-15-foot room, about the size of a normal bedroom, in the parish hall adjacent to the garage. That room housed the pantry’s inventory and was a tight fit even for the volunteers who pre-bagged groceries that were handed out.

Now a main central aisle — with food and household items on multiple levels of a shelving unit — greets customers, who push small grocery carts in which they carry their selections. More shelves on one side provide warehouse space, while a large standup freezer on the opposite side contains frozen meats from which customers can choose and take to the “checkout” table.

Subtle signs of the Catholic faith suggest to customers the religious reason that keeps the pantry going. A banner naming the outreach “Our Mother’s Pantry” hangs in front of the central shelving, a reference both to Our Mother of Sorrows Parish and to its namesake, Mary, the mother of Jesus. A banner of Jesus and the Divine Heart of Mercy hangs above one aisle, while one of Our Lady of Guadalupe is over the other. A crucifix hangs above the doorway.

The pantry is open twice a month, on the second and fourth Thursdays. Bags are still prepared and delivered to those who are homebound. The pantry has 27 volunteers; four are normally scheduled during its regular hours, though Camardella said it could be staffed by as few as three.

It serves more than 200 people each month, said Jay Ferber, outreach treasurer.

The converted garage is the latest project in the parish’s outreach to those in need. The pantry started in 1985 with no set hours, with people receiving bags of groceries on an as-needed basis; holiday packages of food also were distributed at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

In 2008, the outreach ministry was formed to better meet the needs of those who are struggling. A helpline provided emergency assistance, such as helping a family facing eviction or cutoff of utilities, and the pantry developed regular times of operation. Both work with county and state social services.

Later, Centreville United Methodist Church asked if Our Mother of Sorrows outreach could help with Backpacks for Kids, which provides food for the weekend for children who are eligible for free or reduced school lunches; Our Mother of Sorrows provides about 160 packages a week for students at Centreville Elementary, located a block away from the church.

The parish also provides holiday meal packages for Christmas and Easter, and sponsors a Christmas Sharing Tree.

Janet Selby, a volunteer for about two-and-a-half years, likes the operations that allow customers a more normal shopping experience. One of her family’s experiences has helped her identify with those who shop at the pantry: A son-in-law in Las Vegas lost his job so he and Selby’s daughter had to rely on food pantries.

“That opens your eyes to the people who could use things like this,” she said.

A customer named Linda likes the manner of the pantry and how its volunteers operate. She only recently began shopping at Our Mother’s Pantry.

“Even though you have to come to a food pantry, they treat you like a human, not as someone in need,” she said.