Evelyn Harrison is the first person that Marilyn Richardson of the Saugerties Area Council of Churches Food Pantry wants to mention on Christmas Eve. Harrison has been one of the stalwart volunteers who have stood by her week in and week out for the 22 years Richardson has been running the organization.
“You know, she’s going to be 101, and she’s still one of our most active volunteers,” marvels Richardson.
Richardson’s family, the Vanderbecks, has been in town since 1709. “That’s one year before the Palatines arrived,” points out Richardson. “We’ve always had a great sense of camaraderie in this town, now more than ever.”
The food pantry’s home at 44 Livingston Street is neatly stacked with shelves of canned and boxed goods and a fridge stocked full of bread and fresh vegetables. There’s a table near the entrance with piles of loose goodies and holiday boxes donated by Hannaford’s. A countertop has stacks of papers, with well-organized sheets charting volunteer hours and records of what’s given and when in various locations. Most importantly, the place has a warm, welcoming and happily busy air about it, even on this holiday morning when the pantry isn’t officially open.
“People come here upset, feeling bad about their circumstances, sometimes crying,” Richardson notes. “We try to ensure that by the time they leave they’re happy and smiling. We try to uplift everyone as well as help them keep food on their tables.”
The food pantry expands
The Saugerties Food Pantry was started in the mid-1970s as a food closet by the late reverend Fred Imhoff of the First Congregational Church, who thought someone should take over regular distribution of government-issued cheese and other items. He and his wife Dorothy pushed their idea into reality, eventually finding a space on Partition Street.
But it wasn’t long before that space was outgrown, with over 100 families participating. The Imhoffs passed the concept of the food pantry idea on to Ethel and LeRoy Donaldson. The whole kit and kaboodle moved on to the parsonage of the United Methodist Church.
Marilyn Richardson and her husband Paul took on the reins of the Saugerties Food Pantry in 1994. It first moved back to Partition Street, and then to its current Livingston Street home. Marilyn, who also serves as vice president for the Council of Churches, started handling all aspects of the food pantry about a dozen years ago. Paul now commutes daily to work in Malta, north of Albany.
The number of households utilizing the food pantry fluctuates between 115 and 165, although numbers of adults and children who utilize its offerings shifts much less. The 48,524 pounds of food bought for distribution from the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York in Latham is augmented by another 30,000 pounds of food donated by local stores including Price Chopper and Hannaford’s. Price Chopper donates bread goods, cakes and pies each week, and many local farms give fresh fruit and vegetables in season.
The annual budget for food is $42,116, with grants covering nearly $13,000 of that amount, including an annual Markertek Fund contribution of approximately $800 per year).
During holiday periods, other entities coordinate donations. At Thanksgiving, for instance, the Lutheran Church hands out turkey baskets. During the Christmas holiday period, the Knights of Columbus gives food and gifts. Richardson makes monthly reports for the Council of Churches and the other charity outfits in town, and is also in regular contact with the schools and area social services, making sure no one in need is being missed.
Helping with various needs
Because the local economy hasn’t been that good, the number of people in need has increased, says Richardson.
In addition to the monthly food allotments given to people who can prove they’re from Saugerties and are of low to middle income, the food pantry hands out information sheets listing where to go if one’s utilities are cut off, how to get heating help, aid for one’s prescriptions and healthcare, who to talk to if in need of housing, places to go for personal-care products and clothing, and those places around town that serve hot lunches each week. They also pass on anything they don’t use to UARC and its client families.
“We have over 50 volunteers, and a group of six men who go to Kingston each week to get our food from the Regional Food Bank’s tractor-trailer when it comes in, plus others who go bet the baked goods from Price Chopper each week,” Richardson says. “We all get a tremendous sense of fulfillment from helping others, a great deal of joy …. You have to have a passion for this to do it.”
Looking back over her years as a Sawyer, Marilyn Richardson remembers a day when there seemed little to do in town besides eat pizza and play pinball. “We’ve become so festive as a town, with things like the Garlic Festival and HITS. When I was a teenager, there was no Boys and Girls Club.”
With the changes, she adds, have come new businesses and a marked increase in the many ways the community looks after itself. In addition to the Food Pantry, the Saugerties Area Council of Churches also operates The Well, which offers one-time emergency grants for those not covered by other programs (as well as low-cost clothing), and a special fund to put those temporarily homeless up at the Wenton Motel.
Richardson pulls out a picture of she and her 100-year old volunteer and friend Evelyn Harrison at a recent event. She smiles.
But then she shakes her head, frowning.
“The one thing we’re down on is financial donations,” she says. “We’re $15,000 down this year, and we need a bump.”
She urges those feeling generous to send checks marked “food pantry” to The Saugerties Area Council of Churches Food Pantry, PO Box 723, Saugerties, NY 12477. Or visit www.saugertiesfoodpantry.com online.