Healthy choices, warm welcome are hallmark of Topeka pantry

by Carolyn Kaberline
Special to The Leaven

TOPEKA — It’s a few minutes before 10 a.m. on Thursday morning and the shelves at the food pantry at Catholic Charities here are stocked. As clients sign in and gather in the nearby waiting room, Brenda Guilfoyle, manager of the Topeka Emergency Assistance Center, passes out fruit to those waiting.

When 10 a.m. arrives, Sarah (not her real name) is greeted in the pantry by volunteer Sheila Hefner. She is then shown the number of items she can select at each station based on the number in her family. After making her choices from shelves of cereals, pasta, fruits and vegetables, Sarah is asked if she’d like some fresh items — ears of corn, potatoes and carrots are today’s choices — from the nearby tables, before receiving some meat from the freezer.

The scene will be repeated many, many times with other clients before the pantry is closed for the day.

The pantry, located in the Catholic Charities building in the 200 block of S. Kansas Ave., is in a part of town where it is most needed.

“Our pantry has a higher volume of clients than most in Shawnee County,” said Guilfoyle. “We currently serve approximately 1200 families feeding close to 3,000 family members each month. All of our pantry food is donated or purchased with monetary contributions. We are one of the few pantries that also offer federal commodities once a month.”

Even with strong support from the parishes — Christ the King and Most Pure Heart of Mary have monthly food drives, while Mother Teresa Parish gives monetary donations and St. Matthew has donated food and a freezer — it is still hard to keep up with the demand.

“We order over 1,000 loaves of bread a week, and it’s all gone within that week,” said Guilfoyle, adding that the items provided through the pantry are meant to be supplemental for those who qualify under the financial guidelines.

“We focus on healthy choices and offer nutritional information and recipes along with the basic food groups — proteins, grains, fruits and vegetables.”

Open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. four days a week — Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday — with Wednesday used for restocking, the pantry is staffed primarily by volunteers.

“We have over 30 volunteers that come in to work, but we definitely need more,” said Guilfoyle, noting that those volunteers help by working at the front desk, unloading trucks, stocking shelves and assisting clients in the pantry. They also prepare weekly bags for those who are truly unsheltered — people living in cars, under bridges and in tents.

“We turn away no one who is hungry,” said Guilfoyle, explaining that those who come to the pantry are a diverse group of people. Some struggle with health or mental issues; some are elderly or disabled and on fixed incomes.

“Most have suffered hardships and misfortunes. They are people who are truly struggling,” she said.

Guilfoyle said that regardless of their reasons for coming to the pantry, “we want them to feel welcomed and loved. After all, we may be the only ones who offer them any kindness or respect today.

“We make no judgments. We haven’t walked in their shoes.”

Although some may feel that the work in the pantry is depressing, Guilfoyle said it is quite the opposite.

“We feel blessed! They show us so much gratitude,” she said, adding that the people they serve are “humble and filled with grace and dignity. They show us how to deal with life in a most resilient and faithful way.”

“The love and generosity is very reciprocal here,” she concluded. “If our purpose in life is to ‘walk each other home,’ we couldn’t be in better company.”

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