In a basement at Our Lady of Mercy, Forest Hills, every Saturday of the month, come rain or snow, volunteers at a food pantry open its doors to the needy in the community, offering more than just well-stocked just shelves of Chef Boyardee cans, dried pasta packets and rows of paper towels and toiletries. They welcome neighbors with open arms and smiles of kindness.
“I enjoy coming here,” said parishioner Mickaelle Gottlieb, who has volunteered at the pantry for over a year. “I just stay one hour and I feel good having had the opportunity. I think that’s what makes a community, a church, to share with everyone, not just the ones that are fortunate.”
It wasn’t always a full house filled with consistent volunteers and inventory alike. One parishioner who helped last winter recalled the food pantry being so low in stock that she had to dismiss those who were asking for help. But with the efforts of Deacon Dean Dobbins, who works in the Office of Human Services at the parish for the past couple years, the program has been revived with the help of generous parishioners and other programs in the community.
Partners include Archbishop Molloy H.S., Briarwood; P.S. 144, Forest Hills; Boy Scouts, Knights of Columbus, American Legion and Catholic Charities among others.
Since the pantry first opened its doors more than three years ago, the parish has expanded social services to include assisting those who might need financial assistance. After a thorough interview process with the deacon, parishioners must provide sufficient evidence of need.
“Outside the food pantry, the human services department helps people that are in need financially,” Deacon Dobbins added. “I help them pay certain bills and they are parishioners here. My pastor put a lot of trust in me and I don’t want to let him down.”
Prayers were answered when the pastor at neighboring Our Lady Queen of Martyrs parish, Auxiliary Bishop Paul R. Sanchez, asked for volunteers to help with the food pantry at Our Lady of Mercy.
Parishioner Mary Aguirre has been volunteering at Our Lady of Mercy for the past two months after seeking a way to give back to the community.
“I love it, I want to help,” said Aguirre. “God blessed me in every single thing that I asked for. I have a great job. I have a great place to live. So I have to say thank you in one way or another.”
The food pantry is open from 10 until 11 a.m. and allows “clients” to shop for as many items as necessary, within reason.
For the April 7 food distribution, the pantry extended its hours until noon for Easter and offered special packages that included roasted ham for the Sunday celebration. Other special occasions when they stock up for the season include Thanksgiving and Christmas.
On average, the pantry serves at least 20 clients a week. Those receiving assistance won’t be dismissed based on their creed, either. One of the pantry’s regulars, an elderly Jewish lady, comes to take her usual rounds of tuna, bread and chocolate, but unintentionally doubles as a food inspector as she checks on the different expiration dates with her magnifying glass.
“We’re coming out of Lent right now and going right into Holy Week,” said Dobbins. “Almsgiving is God’s love. God says give, don’t judge, just give. So that’s what we do, we give as much as we can. If you need it, you need it. I’ve been in that situation in my life and God helps you and guides you. There’s a reason why these people are coming here.”