The business runs on the importance of community and public service
Roberta Marquette-Strain / Senior Staff Writer
On Ohio Street, tucked within a strip of small offices, the Gunnison Food Pantry sits. It’s a small building, and can feel cramped with the many volunteers and people who come through. But, the feeling of the confined area melts away by the time a volunteer greets you with a warm smile and a friendly “Hey! How are you?”
The Pantry is a safe place filled with friendly, familiar faces for the regulars that come through, and they will help any of the new faces who are in a bind and are in need of food.
In 1962, Anne Steinbeck, who ran the Department of Health and Human Services, started an ‘under the desk’ operation by saving up food for the people she encountered who were in the process of getting their food stamp application accepted, but still needed food. The idea of a public food pantry stemmed from Steinbeck’s operation and since then, the Food Pantry has continued to grow, gaining more volunteers and customers.
The Food Pantry serves people who are in the food stamp process, are undocumented, or are dealing with financial problems. The volunteers make it their mission to make everyone who walks through the door feel unashamed and welcome. “As human beings, we want to go where someone knows us and appreciates that we stop by. That’s what we try to build,” said Katie Dix, the president of the governing board of the pantry.
Since the age of 18, Dix has been heavily involved with volunteer work. When she moved to Gunnison in 2013, Dix knew she wanted to volunteer and started to work with the Pantry. She took to Gunnison well and liked the sense of community in the town, especially after volunteering. “You can live in a town and people will walk right around you. If you don’t put yourself in the middle of something and say ‘I’m here’ then you don’t make friends.”
To her many co-workers, Dix is considered the backbone of the Pantry. They credit her hard work, dedication, and the many hours she works to insure the Food Pantry runs smoothly.
Dix’s co-workers are all volunteers. They are not paid for the work they do; they are simply there to help out the community in any way they can. “I come here because I want to give back to the community. It’s very important for me to be a part of the place I live and to help the people I spend time with,” said Star Vargas, the volunteer manager.
Vargas puts in at least 30 to 40 hours at the Pantry, on top of the 15 hours they are open during the week. Vargas hopes to gradually make her way up into leadership roles. Her main goal is to make the customers feel safe and accepted if people feel ashamed or uncomfortable to be there. Vargas is open to sit down and listen to anyone who would want to talk about what they are going through and believes that it is an important factor. “If you want to lift their spirits, let them know you’re here,” she said.
The volunteers are a crucial part to keep the Food Pantry functioning. “Without our volunteers, this wouldn’t be happening,” Vargas said.
The Pantry is always open to new volunteers and can find a place for them to work. “If you want a satisfying experience, come here. I will help you,” Dix said. They also want to promote the importance of community service to the different organizations and schools in Gunnison. “We work with the community groups to try and instill the value of community service,” said Dix.
The bonds formed between the volunteers and customers however, is truly the strongest link of the Food Pantry. Dix referenced the theme song to “Cheers” to illustrate the importance of this saying, “I want to go where everybody knows my name.”