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Helping Hands Food Pantry

Helping Hands Offers Assistance To Great Falls Community

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Recently, after the Sun Times published the story, “Kyona Yeager Recovering After Sudden Illness, Life Flight To Salt Lake City Hospital,” [see] the story was picked up by the Great Falls Tribune.

Among the Tribune readers who saw the story were some of the volunteers at Helping Hands, a food pantry in Great Falls.

Helping Hands contacted the Sun Times to inquire about getting a digital copy of Kyona’s book of recipes she put together earlier this year. While speaking with the people at Helping Hands, we thought a story about their efforts in Great Falls might be worthwhile.

This newspaper covers our local pantry, the Fairfield Food Pantry, but as we have come to notice that there is a need beyond Fairfield, we hope to feature more of the food pantries and food drives in our region.

We asked Carrie Parker, who was recently appointed Director of the volunteer organization (after serving as a volunteer for 14 years), if she would answer some questions about Helping Hands, and she kindly agreed to the interview.

Helping Hands is located at the parish house of First English Lutheran Church in Great Falls. The pantry had a humble start about 36 years ago, beginning as a “small food cupboard to help out congregation members who may be struggling,” according to Carrie.

How many volunteers do you have?

Prior to Covid-19, we had somewhere around 30-35 volunteers.  As many of our volunteers were in the “at risk” categories for the virus, we are temporarily down to somewhere around 15-20.

Volunteers are not limited to church members?

Helping Hands is inspired by God’s message of loving our neighbors.  We believe that means ALL of our neighbors, no matter what their beliefs may be—in other words, everyone! 

Because of that, there is no church “requirement” of any sort for volunteers or clients.  Anyone is welcome to serve (although we are keeping the volunteer list short right now due to COVID), and anyone is welcome to come and get groceries.  There are no conditions on this whatsoever, and we have volunteers from many religious backgrounds, or no religious affiliation.

 Our conversation began when another volunteer contacted the Sun Times about getting a digital version of Kyona’s collection of recipes after our story appeared in a recent Sunday issue of the Great Falls Tribune. What was it about the recipe book that is of interest?

First, we were inspired by Kyona’s story.  She’s a change agent.  It’s so hopeful to see young people (and people of any age!) with not only the perspective to see another’s situation and have compassion, but then ALSO to take action to do something to help. 

Kyona’s idea of a pantry cookbook is a great idea!  We often make copies of recipes for items we have on hand, but it’s wonderful to have a collection of similar recipes all together in an actual cookbook. We just stuff the copies in the bags currently, and I’m sure they sometimes get lost or misplaced.  An actual cookbook could be very helpful.

Do you hope to offer the recipes as a little something extra to the members of the community that rely on Helping Hands?

I’d love to offer the recipes in Kyona’s cookbook to our Helping Hands clients!

Sharing recipes is a tradition that is likely as old as the kitchen table. It is a tradition of friendship, of family. Do you feel that sharing these recipes may have an uplifting effect with some of the people Helping Hands serves?

One of our main objectives at Helping Hands is to provide hospitality to our clients. We are all in this together right now, and there’s never been a better time to extend the hand of friendship and care to one another.  (Although an elbow bump might be better given the circumstances!)

People are struggling.  Food is not only a basic necessity, but also a source of comfort and healing.  Sharing recipes is a beautiful way of offering hospitality and, in a manner of speaking, actually coming to the table with our clients. 

On average, how many people do you serve during a month?

Prior to COVID-19, we were serving upwards of 1,000 people a month. Since we’ve had to reduce our operating hours, we are now serving around 400-450 a month.  However, before COVID, we only served clients once a month.  Currently, we are able to welcome clients each week if they need assistance. 

How has COVID affected those numbers?

Covid has definitely affected the number of clients served because we are only open on Saturday now rather than Monday through Thursday.  We’re still giving out a lot of groceries now though, as clients are welcome to come weekly if they need help—whereas prior to COVID we only offered groceries once a month to each client or family.

Have you seen an increase now that school has started?

We’ve only been in school for a couple of weeks and we were closed on Labor Day, so I have not noticed a trend yet.  Having said that, the need continues to be great in our community.  Sadly, we have a high rate of poverty in Great Falls.  We want to be a hopeful and friendly place for our neighbors who are going through difficult times, so that they know they are cared for and loved no matter what their circumstances are.  The world lately has seemed so divisive and sometimes hateful, and we want Helping Hands to be a judgement-free sanctuary where people are fed with both food and friendship.

Of those you serve in an average month, how many are families? Individuals?

We serve mostly families, but many individuals as well.  Our groceries are grouped in bags for families of 1-2, 3-4, or 5 and above.

How is Helping Hands supported?

Helping Hands has been supported through the generous donations of our community and congregation, and the efforts and energy of our volunteers.  Town Pump graciously offers a yearly matching fund campaign, and we’ve gotten funds from MT COVID relief this year, as well as the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America). St. Vincent dePaul and Albertson’s Grocery Store - NW (1414 Third St NW, Great Falls) support our program, as does Eklund’s Appliance and the Great Falls Community Food Bank.  We would not be able to do what we are doing without the on-going support of our donors, volunteers, and support network.  Not only are clients fed, but the hearts of our volunteers are nourished by coming together to help one another. Our hope is that we begin, even in a small way, to create ripples of kindness and compassion that extend to the larger community.

Do you offer assistance beyond food?

Yes. We aren’t currently offering clothing due to COVID safety reasons, but we look forward to doing so again.  We will be offering cold weather gear as the season changes, such as coats, hats, and gloves.  We are only accepting these cold weather items at this point, due to storage limitations.  We also offer basic hygiene products, diapers, and have recently begun offering kits for clients who may not have access to a kitchen or refrigerator.

What foods seem to be the favorites?

It’s hard to say what foods are the favorites.  The bread and desserts from Albertson’s are always in demand.  It’s a great day when a client requests a birthday cake for a child and we’re able to meet that request!  Our produce from St. Vincent dePaul is always much appreciated, too.  Peanut butter, macaroni and cheese, tuna, and cereal are also in high demand.

If someone in your area needs assistance, how do they make contact with Helping Hands?

They could just come on over to Helping Hands on Saturdays from 1:00 p.m.-3:00 p.m.  If they had any questions, they could call our church office at 453-9551.

In a city the size of Great Falls, there are multiple agencies and organizations to help the community. When it comes to food pantries, do the organizations co-ordinate their efforts?

We have a brochure that we give out listing other resources in town.  (This is actually on my list of things to do for Helping Hands—help clients to better access community resources!  We have some work to do in this area.  There are many organizations in the community doing good work.)

This year, COVID seems to have made people more aware of how important food pantries are. This year, just in our area, “Painting for the Pantry” and “Kyona’s Biggest Drive” have been a big part of this. What can an organization like Helping Hands do to keep these community needs on people’s minds?

Stories like the one you’re writing now are a great way for Helping Hands and other groups to raise awareness of local poverty issues. News stories can also help augment volunteer and financial support for these causes.  It’s so easy, and often our natural inclination as humans,  to go about our daily lives and not “see” the needs or even the suffering of our neighbor.  Reading about the experiences of others in articles like this help us to see and understand, and hopefully will elicit empathy and an on-going dialogue.  As we go forward, I’m planning to meet with local community agencies and organizations to keep getting the word out.

Is there more that the media can do?

My hope is that the media continues to cover these issues of poverty and need in our community.  I’ve seen some disheartening comments on social media about our homeless population in Great Falls.  I’d love to see the media write an entire series of educational articles about the causes of homelessness and poverty.  There are often underlying reasons, such as mental health conditions.  For all human beings, especially when facing a struggle, just being seen and treated with basic dignity and respect can mean so much. It would be great to see these ideas of help and humanity, ideas of caring for one another, on the forefront of our conversations in the days, weeks, months, and years to come. 

Helping Hands pantry is located at 726 2nd Ave. N. in downtown Great Falls—by the big white church.