Gerre Johnson and the Manchester Community Pantry
National Volunteer Week runs April 24 to 30.
Gerre Johnson has been running the Community Pantry program in the Calgary Housing Company-managed Manchester 3 building on and off for over a decade. It’s pretty much a full time job for her to get the monthly pantry boxes together. “There’s always something to keep me busy”. She volunteers, she says, “because it is a way to give back to all the people who have helped me in life.”
The boxes are dropped off with residents the third week of the month. They’re not intended as a full grocery shop, but rather to hold people through to pay day “when they really feel the pinch.” Any resident of the two CHC Manchester high rise buildings can participate if they are in need.
Each family or individual participating is given an order form listing available dry goods. Gerre and her team of volunteers get to know everyone and tailor the food to their need, family size, likes and dislikes. They want the food to be eaten and the families to be happy, so they accommodate individual preferences to the best of their ability. The boxes of food consist of dry goods, and then, if needed, diapers, cleaning supplies, and hygiene supplies. For families, they try to offer healthy foods and healthy snacks that kids can take with them to school. Chips, chocolate, and other less than healthy snacks they leave for the adults. They used to distribute fresh produce and meat, but, unfortunately, limited funding and inflation has prevented them supplying those items recently.
The program started 10 years ago after a group of residents got together to plan programming for the building. A movie night or games night was suggested first, but Gerre wanted to do something she saw as more meaningful. The pantry started off as a table in the lobby of the building. It quickly grew into a full room. After taking a pause for a few years the program relaunched eight months ago in its current space.
As a resident herself, the program has given Gerre a way to connect with her neighbours and build community. Her team of five volunteers are all residents as well. She explains that by getting to know her neighbours, she can better understand their needs and how the Community Pantry Project can help.
“I can’t see people do without” Gerre shares. She speaks about one resident who, a month after moving in, still didn’t have any furniture. First, the Pantry bought her a recliner, but then they saw she didn’t have a mattress either. Eventually the group helped her get cups, plates, and everything she was missing from her apartment.
”She was so grateful and called me an angel. I said we’re not angels, we just love to help! When residents move out I ask if they have any furniture they aren’t taking, and I check thrift stories. People can be so nervous to ask for something, but there’s no reason to live without it.”
The pantry is located on the ground floor of the building near the entrance. Residents are always passing by and popping in to say ‘hi’. The room transforms on packing day, as the team of volunteers set up shelves and face the products forward (to check expiry dates). It looks like a mini grocery store! While volunteers pack boxes for residents, another team of volunteers works behind the shelves to restock and keep the packing line moving.
Gerre is concerned about funding and explains the program has greatly expanded in need. Previously they served 10 families, but now they’re serving over 65 families. She estimates they only have three months of funding left. (Anyone interested in contributing can make a monetary donation to the SHARP Foundation and indicate on the donation it is for the Community Pantry Program).