ST. PETERSBURG—You’re getting into the spirit of the moment when you forget to take a photo to post on social media. That’s what happened to Jay Howat mid-December when he and a dedicated group of St. James UMC volunteers worked at the St. Petersburg church’s monthly food pantry in the fellowship hall.
Regular clients, many of them seniors on a fixed income, had come on a Saturday morning to accept gifts of food for Christmas dinners, as well as the surprise of gift cards. Some had even brought Christmas cards to Howat, who, by his account, is a newbie at the pantry. He began volunteering and grew into leading the charge about nine months ago. An engineer by vocation, he has found helping those in need to be a welcome challenge.
The pantry serves an eight zip code area with a lot of need and has been in existence for about eight years. The church’s former pastor and her husband, Rebecca and Daniel Lehman, brought the issue to the forefront. When they left last summer, they asked Howat, who heads the trustees at the church, to take on the role of director of the food pantry where he had been volunteering.
“Part of our effort is to get new sources for food,” said Howat.
The church has already benefited from donated food items—including canned and dry goods, meat, produce, milk, bread and pastries from the St. Petersburg Free Clinic and pre-packaged foods from a local grocery store chain, Save-A-Lot. They were provided needed goods by nearby Faith Covenant Church. At other times, donations arrived from what Howat called “an anonymous benefactor.”
Howat said there are plans to meet with and involve other partners in the future. The pantry is open on the fourth Saturday of each month, 9 to 11 a.m. People start lining up around 8 a.m., and Howat makes a point of walking the line, greeting everyone and getting to know them.
“This is more than giving out food. It’s making relationships,” he said. “We try and create a warm, friendly atmosphere. It’s not like going through a cold distribution center.”
With the help of some 12 to 15 volunteers to handle registration, bring items from the freezer and refrigerator and restock tables, St. James can move the clients through fairly quickly. “Nobody likes waiting in line,” said Howat. Those in need also get a reminder card of when to come back, and their information is kept on file so they can sign in on a rolling log and show their IDs. About 90 clients come each pantry day, some with family.
Many are Medicaid recipients and living in government housing without Social Security. They depend on the pantry to help them through tough times, said Howat.
At December’s pantry, the young woman who signed clients in took their names and addressed them on gift cards bought with donations. The five-dollar Steak’n Shake, Dollar General and McDonald’s gift cards were a surprise from St. James UMC. There was a real holiday spirit, according to Howat.
“I got so caught up in it all that I didn’t even think of taking pictures for the (church) website,” he said.
But now, in the first weeks of the new year, he’s back to the business of making the pantry the best it can be for the clients, many of whom are regulars. “We’re looking for vendors to be providing on a consistent basis, and we’re trying to expand carefully, sensibly and logically,” Howat said.
--Anne Dukes is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.
Editor’s Note: Donate here to the Florida Conference Hurricane Irma Fund to help churches and the neighborhoods that surround them. Volunteer to bring yourself or a team to help with the recovery. Together, with God, we are bigger! #flumcWeAreBigger