KEENE -- With the precision that comes with experience, Sherry Garland dips his mop into a big yellow bucket, careful not to splash a drop, then carefully wrings it out. Ladies walk around the wet outlines on the floor he's just cleaned. He smiles at them explaining they can go ahead and walk through; it's just going to get dirty again anyway. He's just trying to get the big stuff.
That's really the aim of all of the volunteers at the Community Kitchen in Keene, just fix the big stuff, the immediate need. People are hungry and for a time at least, they can get them fed. That's all they can do.
On this particular Thursday, the volunteer crew is busy getting boxes ready for delivery, food sorted for the pantry and dinner prepped for the night side volunteers. In any given week, The Kitchen will give food to 600 families through the pantry, feed 80 to 100 people per night with its hot meal program and deliver 50 boxes per week to the needy. At Thanksgiving and Christmas, those numbers jump dramatically to 1,500 families getting boxes because The Community Kitchen supplies holiday baskets for food pantries throughout Cheshire County. And it's volunteers who make most of that happen.
Though there are at least 1,000 well-meaning souls signed up to lift, tote, stack, sort, cook and clean, it's really a dedicated core of about 20 that are here without fail, said Food Pantry Manager Meighan Zaharchuk.
Garland is one of those volunteers.
"I see a great need out there," said the 66-year-old Garland. "I do this because to give back and you know, some point and time in my life, I may be right back on the other side. Who knows, you just try to help the people as much as you can."
Five and a half years ago, Garland lost his job as a foreman for a painting contractor when the economy tanked. After looking for work for two years and finding nothing, he found himself going a little stir crazy with nothing to do all week. He decided to volunteer and has been at The Kitchen ever since. These days he splits his time between volunteering at the Community Kitchen doing whatever needs doing and The Red Cross in Keene, as a driver.
"I had to put my time to some good use," he said. "Any one of us could be on the other side of that line. I know what they're going through."
What's truly unfortunate Garland, who now lives in Marlborough, said, is the shift in demographics of The Kitchen's clientele. No longer is it just homeless; seniors, young families and other working poor fill the lines. Volunteer Lucy Donegan, of Swanzey, describes one family in particular where the father has a good job and makes good money, but with 10 kids in the family, can't make ends meet. She said this winter there will be more like them.
"They usually have to make the decision to heat their homes or buy food," she said. "They usually choose heat."
Like anyone, Donegan has her own troubles. A few years ago sciatica surgery knocked her out. And it's flat out sad for her watching dire need play out in vivid flesh and blood day in and day out, with little change and little she can do to change it. She's still loath to miss a day volunteering there. On this particular Thursday, she came fresh from her overnight job as a baker at Shaw's in Peterborough to deliver some leftovers and stayed another several hours to help out.
"If you ever think you're down and out and got things bad, all you have to do is come in here and see what some of our clientele are going through," the 69-year-old great grandmother said. "And truthfully, these people (both clients and fellow volunteers) keep me going. I had sciatica surgery a few years ago and I don't think I would have recovered as quickly as I did without this."
Zaharchuk said, "Some of them get really close to the people they're delivering to."
The goal with the boxes is to provide each family with three meals a day for three days. Each gets about a dozen shelf-stable items, bread, a little meat, some dairy and whatever produce has been donated by businesses, farms and local gardeners. But sometimes, a few boxes get a little something special.
"Some of the volunteers will kind of pull me aside and say, 'do you have any cupcakes?' or something like that, 'Mrs. So and So really likes that,"Zaharchuk said.
Garland, is one of those volunteers too.
"There's one gentleman who really likes grapefruit, that's all he asks for. So I asked for some and set it aside." Garland said when he gives it to the man, "he just lights up, because he knows someone would do that for him."These volunteers also know when the disability checks come out (the third of the month), when food stamps are issued (the fourth) and when it all runs out (middle to end of the month). It's these little things that help volunteers know what moods their clients will likely be in, when they need to try to stock a little more food and generally how best to help the people that come in. "It can be tough," Donegan said. "But the best is when you stop seeing someone come in here and then you run into them on the street and ask them where they've been and they say, 'I don't need to come in anymore.' That makes it all worth it."
As one group of volunteers lugs the boxes out to their cars to make the weekly delivery, another set of boxes appear. Along with the boxes are more volunteers, including 82-year-old Anne Baker, of Keene. She's been coming here for the past 10 years. "It's been a rewarding experience," she said, sorting a slew of day old breads and pastries from the local Hannaford, donates 400-500 pounds of food to The Kitchen per week. "Just knowing that there are a lot of people out there that need help and if we do it the right way, we can give it to them."
She said she enjoys seeing the people who come in and she tries not to miss her shift. "They always enjoy seeing the same faces in here," she said. "And I think it's hard for them to constantly see new faces. So when I'm not here and then come in, it's always nice to hear them say, 'oh, I'm so glad you're back.' Or 'where have you been?'"
Eventually the sorted boxes will be set up by food type on tables for those who need it to come through and choose what they'd like to take home. Each person who comes to The Community Kitchen for the food pantry, held Wednesdays and Thursdays, gets a stamp on his or her hand with the number of people in their household. Sometimes, supplies are scarce, and the people coming through are limited as to what they can take, but other days, said Zaharchuck, they might get an extra big donation of one thing or another. Everyone likes those days, because those are the days she said, she gets to tell them they can take as much of something as they want, no limit.
"You should see their faces when I say that," she said.
But on an average Wednesday or Thursday people come through and pick out their food. For the first-timers to the line, they go through a little sheepishly, embarrassed that somehow it's come to this. The volunteers try to keep the mood respectful, but light to put them at ease. Especially with the kids, from the littlest who aren't sure what's going on to the older ones who slink in worried someone they know might see their need. One of the volunteers, Zaharchuck said, makes it a point to joke around with those kids in particular, maybe slip them some candy.
"I get a great deal from doing this," Garland said. "There's no pay involved at all, but what you get in return from some of these people is worth it. There's one woman who comes in and without fail says, 'thank you for volunteering.' You have to thrive on the good moments."