Food bank making holiday brighter

Volunteers Ronald Bakker and Marie Vinagre load up a cart with bags of groceries for patrons of the Ecumenical Food Bank in Naugatuck on Friday. Families in need of food will receive three days’ worth of provisions for each member of the family. The food bank is located at 75 Spring St.

NAUGTUCK — The Ecumenical Food Bank is gearing up for Thanksgiving in a big way. Last Monday, volunteers gave out 252 holiday baskets to the needy in Naguatuck and Beacon Falls.

The families signed up for the limited number of baskets in October, and there are 34 more on the waiting list, said Gerhard Roland, a volunteer at the food bank.

Volunteers worked Sunday night and Monday morning to prepare the feast, with tables set up in Saint Michael’s Church for people to choose their items.

“We get lots of kids,” said Peter Varney, a volunteer for the past 10 years, “They enjoy it.”

Volunteers Ellen Rooney, above left, and Shirley Froelick, rear, prepare bags of food for families in need at the Ecumenical Food Bank in Naugatuck on Friday.

One of those holiday baskets, filled with turkeys, stuffing, potatoes, carrots, onions, cranberry sauce, and other items, went to Dawn Roberts.

She supports her husband, her four kids, her stepdaughter, and her stepdaughter’s baby on Robert’s salary. She has been coming to the food bank on and off for 10 years, as the need arises.

“I’m really empty right now,” she said.

Roberts will host Thanksgiving for her family and six stepdaughters. Everyone will bring something to eat.

When the economy is good, there is less need around the holidays because people scrap together what they can to buy their own meal, but this year there have been more people requesting food, according to Roland.

Volunteer Rita Starziski selects cans of soup from the pantry.

The economy isn’t getting any better for those in the working class, especially families where both parents have lost their jobs, said Marie Vinagre, another volunteer.

“Every single day we are open we have new people,” she said.

The food bank serves about 300-400 families per month, according to Roland.

“As much as we like to think it’s getting better for them, the need hasn’t gone away,” Roland said.

Skender Emini has been coming to the Ecumenical Food Bank for the past four years, ever since he arrived in America to care for his murdered brothers’ four children. Originally from Serbia, Emini was caring for the children himself until his wife arrived this summer. Now he has to feed six people, but doesn’t have a green card and can’t get a job, he said.

In the past, other residents of Naugatuck have been helping him out, but now they can’t afford it.

When people lose their jobs, they have to take care of themselves first, Varney said.

“Now the way the economy is, people are giving less and of course more people are coming in here,” Varney said.

Two weeks ago, the Food Bank’s shelves were almost empty, but they have been replenished thanks to donations by the Naugatuck boy scouts and Naugatuck Fire Fighters Local 1219. The fire fighters donated 50 bags of food.

“It was nice that we were able to get the support that we got, knowing that boy scouts were also getting donations for the food bank,” said Lt. Michael Chatfield.

They also donated $500, a surprise to the food bank.

“We hope they can turn that $500 into a lot of food for a lot of people,” said Chatfield.

The food bank received 100 turkeys from the State of Connecticut Food Bank, plus donations from individuals.

The people of Naugatuck are giving pretty nicely, said Roland.

Roland said that people usually give a lot during the holiday season, but they forget that the bank needs food all year long.
The firefighters hope to address that issue.

“Obviously this time of year is nice to donate, but we’re going to consider having a drive in the summer months,” said Chatfield.

Anyone who can prove they live in Naugatuck or Beacon Falls can come to the center, which is open on Tuesdays and Fridays. They receive a nutritionally balance supply of food for three days, three meals a day, for each member of the family. In from January through August, they served 6,868 individuals.

Varney said there was a mixture of people who come to the food bank, from individuals to families of eight.

Muteba Mbaya has a temporary position as a machine operator, but doesn’t earn enough to put food on the table. He came to Ecumenical Food Bank for the first time Friday after another family told him about it. Mbaya moved to the United States from the Democratic Republic of Congo about a year ago. In his home country, he had masters in construction engineering.

“When I arrived in the U.S.A., my dream was to work in this domain,” he said.

However, the U.S. won’t recognize his diploma. He thought moving to America would bring him greater economic opportunities, but now he can only get low level jobs.

Mbaya said he hopes to go to school in the U.S. once he saves up enough money.

The volunteers mostly come from the 14 member churches which run the food bank. Every month, a different church is in charge.
Chris Unander, a senior at Naugatuck High School, started volunteering at the food bank to fulfill his 100 required hours for school, but kept coming. He’s now put in over 200 hours, and doesn’t plan to stop.

“It lifts my spirits to help others,” he said.