GREEN BAY — Janice Clemens said she believes that “God was at work” in her invitation to become co-director of St. Patrick’s Food Pantry, along with her husband, Chris.
“I volunteered here first,” said Janice. “When Donna (Kessler, former longtime pantry director who followed Franciscan Sr. Louise Hunt) thought about retiring, she said that she remembered that she heard me say that I wanted to focus on one volunteer item. I’m almost 100% sure that I said that I wanted to do a variety of things. I think she saw Chris and I as a couple (for the position). Donna did a great job and left us in a pretty good situation.”
Janice started as a volunteer at the pantry in September 2019, following retirement. Chris joined her a year later, after he retired.
“We hadn’t even been managers. We have managers on each shift each day. We went right from volunteers to directors,” said Chris with a laugh.
Janice and Chris, members of Nativity of Our Lord Parish, Ashwaubenon, are now the Tuesday managers, in addition to serving as directors. The pantry, housed in the Hope Center at 505 Clinton St. in Green Bay, is open for clients from 1 to 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday. This year marks 25 years of providing food for those in need. The first 20 years, the pantry operated in the basement of St. Patrick Church. The Hope Center, a collaboration of the west side Green Bay parishes, opened in 2016. The building is also the west side home for Love Life, which provides basic infant needs to low-income families.
St. Patrick’s Food Pantry, which is open to anyone living in Brown County, currently only offers curbside pickup in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Premade boxes are packed, based on the family size. Clients may request extra items. Four volunteers work each shift, except for Tuesdays when a fifth volunteer does data entry.
Both Janice and Chris have IT (information technology) backgrounds, so they’ve automated most data, including client information, volunteer schedules and packing lists.
“If they’ve been here before, we’ve got them in the database already,” said Janice. “We just pull their sheet out. We know about their household, how many live there. We take their order for the day. If they are new, we fill out a sheet for them.”
Chris has implemented a color coordinated system for food sorting. All boxes are dated. Different color labels allow volunteers to recognize which items need to be rotated to the shelves for distribution first.
The pantry receives monetary donations made through the Quad Parishes on the west side of Green Bay. Parishes also provide support through food collections — designated boxes for donations or through “reverse collections” where parish members receive a slip of paper with a specific food item and donate that item the following weekend.
“St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish (Green Bay) does (a reverse collection) once a month,” said Janice. “It’s great because then we get exactly what we need.”
A list of the most needed items is shared with the parishes and provided on the website, hopecentergb.com/st-patricks-pantry/how-can-we-help.
“The surprising thing is we are a food pantry, but there is a need for hygiene and cleaning products,” said Janice. “Most people on FoodShare can’t use those for body wash or shampoo.”
Toilet paper is provided to clients through donations from Bedford Paper of De Pere.
St. Patrick’s is part of the Brown County Food and Hunger Network.The number of client visits at all food pantries in Wisconsin has decreased during the pandemic, said Janice. Stimulus funds may be the reason for the drop in client visits, she added. The highest number in recent months at St. Patrick’s was August with 146 clients served.
In response to fewer numbers, St. Patrick’s Food Pantry extends its outreach into the community. They have connected with the Green Bay Area Public School District. School counselors put pantry flyers in backpacks of children whose families may need food assistance. They also partner with Jackson Elementary School in Green Bay.
“Once a month we are piloting a program with Jackson,” said Janice. “The school counselor started a mini-pantry. At the direction of the (Hope Center) board, this is another way we can use the monetary donations to help the community, especially with our client counts being down.
“We are trying to build family meal time,” she said. “We come up with a theme and do food kits. We will have a recipe and they will put it together. We provide it in English and Spanish. This month, we are going to do something with ham. We did 27 kits in our highest month. Nineteen was our lowest. In that kit, there is also a flyer for our pantry.”
A partnership with St. John the Evangelist Homeless Shelter is also in the works. Janice has volunteered at the shelter and recognized the need for to-go meals for shelter guests who have jobs.
For the clients who visit the pantry during the week, some recent changes have been made for their convenience. Milk no longer fills the cooler shelves. Milk vouchers are given to clients which they can use at Save A Lot.
“We have people walking up pulling a suitcase behind and people on bikes,” said Janice. “We reached out to all the 5k and 10k races in Brown County. They gave us some really nice shoulder bags that they can put on their back on their bike.”
“What we really need is more new volunteers,” said Chris, “If someone is interested, they can go to the website or stop in.”
The pantry has a pool of about 70 volunteers, including eight managers, but will lose some snowbirds during the winter months. In addition to those who serve at the pantry site, two men pick up orders from Feeding America, the pantry’s source for meat. Another man picks up all the boxes for recycling. Two Bay Port students recently became the first high school community service volunteers at St. Patrick’s. The girls make thank-you cards for handwritten messages to donors and help put together spice packets for the meal kits.
Janice said that many of the longtime pantry volunteers continue to be a good resource.
“They tell us if we are doing something wrong, and we need that,” she said with a smile.
The rewards of helping people make the work worth it, said Chris.
“Just seeing the smiles on people’s faces out there, lights you up,” he said. “Everybody is just so grateful to get the food. We put a cart with Thanksgiving items out. They take what they need. They don’t grab everything. Everybody is respectful.”
“We want to be an elite pantry, good service with a smile,” added Janice. “If it’s been donated to us, we’re going to get it to the clients who need it. Any of us could be in that situation. God will provide. He has so far.”