Sarasota | “We would be here even if it was to help one family.”
This was the assertion made by Maria DeJesus the director of St. Jude Parish Food Pantry in Sarasota. In existence since the Parish was founded in 2006, the food pantry, which sits in a mobile home at the rear of the Parish property, normally assists a few dozen families each week. Most of these families are down on their luck or in need of emergency supplies because of other unexpected expenses.
The COVID-19 Pandemic changed the dynamics in the community as many families were struck with unforeseen job loss as well as an uncertain future.
“We jumped to helping more than 120 families each week,” DeJesus explained. “It was shocking, but we responded in the best way we could; with prayers, hard work and the grace of God.”
Appeals for financial support went out and the faithful responded either with food or financial donations. With All Faith’s Food Bank — a primary source for supplies — nearly depleted because of the same demand, DeJesus and other volunteers purchased food at local stores, whatever they could get their hands on.
“It was tough,” she explained. “The stores didn’t have much, but we talked to the managers and they worked with us to get what we needed. They understood that our food was feeding people who might otherwise starve without our help.”
Starvation might seem like an extreme statement, but when families lose jobs and bills continued to come in, difficult choices must be made. Food becomes a luxury item and as the home cupboards emptied, they turned to the one place they trusted — the Parish.
Father Celestino Gutierrez, Pastor of St. Jude, said he is proud of the work being done through the food pantry and ensure they have what is needed to meet the demand.
“When we built the church, I made sure we had this food pantry,” he explained. “I purchased this used mobile home (which holds the pantry) so that we had something when people came to us for help, we would always be there.”
Father Gutierrez said the Catholic Church is a beacon of hope for the world and in turn the food pantry is an important part of that hope for the community. “We are called by Jesus to help the least of our brothers (Mt 25:40). We must always remember to do that.”
As a vehicle approached on a recent Wednesday evening, the driver’s face was unfamiliar, but the story was not: job loss, hardship, worry, need.
Two overflowing bags of food were loaded into the back of the vehicle as the driver said she was thankful and wanted to get out and give them a hug. While there were no hugs during social distancing, the thanks and gestures were appreciated.
DeJesus said the peak demand has tapered off since mid-June as businesses are reopening and people go back to work, but there are still upwards of 60 to 80 families coming to the food pantry during the two distribution times each week (5-6:30 p.m. Wednesdays and 8:30-9:30 a.m. Saturdays). That translates to hundreds of mouths being fed. The pantry offers food that will last families for about two weeks, offering staples such as meats, fruits and vegetables.
“No matter the demand, we will be here,” DeJesus said.
That same attitude is found at other Parishes that established emergency food pantries. St. Peter the Apostle Parish in Naples set up its emergency food pantry in the Spirit Center, a place where receptions and fun events normally take place. Directed by John Toti, who is the Parish Events Coordinator in other times, he noted that locally those working in service industries were particularly hard hit and requests for help came pouring in, even as the Parish offices were closed to visitors.
“In the past we would have either directed them to go to Catholic Charities or the St. Vincent de Paul Society, or even given them a gift card to a nearby store,” Toti explained. “But everyone was hit with demand all at once, so we knew we had to do something else.”
An emergency request was made to Catholic Charities and the response was positive as Toti previously volunteered at the nearby Judy Sullivan Family Resource Center, a facility run by Catholic Charities which includes a large food pantry. A general appeal to parishioners for donations generated its own overwhelming response and for the past eight weeks food has been made available to all.
“It is the right thing to do,” Toti said. “We are here every day (10 a.m.-3 p.m.) and provide a good mix of food that will last.”