ON THE SCENE: Touching lives with the food pantry

Denice Fredericks, left, and Linda Young. help with the annual Thanksgiving food box distribution at St. Agnes Church in Lake Placid Monday, Nov. 22. Young is the director of the Lake Placid Ecumenical Food Pantry. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

By any measure, this had been a challenging year for most middle- and lower-income families in our region.

In many respects, it’s getting more challenging as the cost of fuel oil and food rises, coupled with shipping delays in a wide range of products. In addition, affordable housing is in short supply, and the costs of preschool and day care are up if one can find a service, as several providers are maxed out.

The good news is that the Lake Placid Ecumenical Food Pantry is still open for business and serving the community. Located in the basement of St. Agnes Catholic Church on Hillcrest Avenue, it’s staffed by a dedicated group of volunteers who, week by week, do their best to take the edge off, however they can. On Monday, Nov. 22, as they have for decades, volunteers prepared Thanksgiving food baskets for those who needed help, some coming from as far away as AuSable Forks.

People who stop get a choice of a frozen chicken or turkey and apple or pumpkin pie – plus the fixins — a bag of potatoes, vegetables, cranberry sauce, gravy, stuffing and more. In many respects, the most significant gift is people helping people, many of whom have been on the receiving side before. It’s neighbor helping neighbor.

One of those neighbors is Bob Jones. He’s volunteered more than he’s willing to count. On Monday, he bundled up for the cold, passing out chickens, turkeys and pies from the back of a large panel truck.

Volunteers Sebastian Narvaez and Barbara Dempsey help with the annual Thanksgiving food box distribution at St. Agnes Church in Lake Placid Monday, Nov. 22. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

“I’ve been volunteering for several years,” said Jones. “I told Linda (Young) that this is my last year. I’m 85. Next year I’ll be 86. I think it’s time for some younger folks to toss around these boxes. I do this because it’s all about helping my neighbors. A lot of them need this kind of support. Nine out of 10 say thank you when you give them a turkey. That means a lot. That says a lot.”

Another stalwart is Denice Fredericks, a longtime coordinator (now retired) of the North Elba Community Christmas Fund that makes sure kids have toys and warm clothes for Christmas. Fredricks, who also can be found ringing the bell for the Salvation Army, has volunteered for the food pantry for decades. Fredericks does it because she’s been there; her youth experience was too often a hard one. She knows the emotional and spiritual difference these acts of love make.

“Being a child growing up poor, you feel good about being able to give back to your community,” said Fredericks. “I know what it’s like to go without. Children are not responsible for who their parents are. I had alcoholic parents. That wasn’t my fault. When you do get in a position to help, to give back, your help matters. You may not have money to give, but you may have a skill or the time to help out here.”

The food pantry profoundly touches the lives of many people. Organizing the weekly distribution and the annual food baskets for Thanksgiving is Linda Young. This aspect of the food pantry has been delivering holiday meals since 1985.

“I don’t know how many meals we give out,” said Young. “Some years it’s around 250, others over 300. We give out meals to as many that arrive. I don’t provide the food. He does,” she said, looking up. “It’s like this morning. I never know how many will come. Today 40 to 45 people showed up and put the baskets together within a half-hour.”

Most people arrive to pick up their food baskets in person; some call asking for a volunteer to deliver their meals. All requests are honored. The key is keeping the names of people who come private. Young doesn’t want anyone to feel embarrassed asking for a basket. The volunteers know how hard it can be for a single parent, have a modest income, or be in other circumstances.

Some people come looking for cold-weather garments. If they don’t find something that fits their needs, Young will call the thrift shop and ask them to bring what’s needed.

“I do this because it’s part of the church community’s ministry and to promote the goodness of it all,” said Young. “I volunteer to help other people and to recruit volunteers. Many of the people we support help us support others. It doesn’t matter your faith or if you don’t practice a religion. Whatever. When people see what we’re doing, they want to join; they want to help others as well. Confidentiality and trust are big things. People are struggling. They have kids. They have expenses. Food and gas have gone up. We do more than just the food. Whatever the need is, we’ll follow up on it.”

Barb Dempsey, who moved to Lake Placid three years ago and is regular food pantry volunteer. For her, volunteering is a way of helping out and building community ties. Sebastian Narvaez volunteered at the suggestion of local town justice and former police officer Dave Coursen. As a person who has benefited from the help of others, he’s was more than willing to get involved.

“The food pantry means my family can eat through these COVID times,” said Daniel, one of the many coming to pick up a Thanksgiving dinner.

“This is my first time,” said Mary. “It’s a godsend.”

The Rev. John Yonkovig, pastor of St. Agnes, tied this work to the gospels, God’s calling on us to help the neediest.

“A young lawyer asked Jesus, ‘What’s the most important thing in life?'” said Yonkovig. “And he said, ‘Love of God and love of your neighbor as you love yourself.’ So, for a person to be truly God-like or a religious person, it demands that we reach beyond our areas of concern to those who struggle in life. You can’t have one without the other. It’s two sides of the same coin. Love God and love neighbor. It’s absolutely critical to who we are as faith-based people.”

“These meals are not for me; they’re for my children and my great-grandchildren,” said Walt. “I pick the meals up for them and anyone else in town that needs something. Neighbors feel comfortable giving me a call, and I help them out any way I can.”

When you are in Hannaford or Price Chopper, there are bins that accept food donations. Purchase an extra box of pasta, cereal, canned goods, a jar of peanut butter and drop it in. You can be sure it will be gratefully received.

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the News for more than 15 years.)