Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 2:44 PM on Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Narrow distance separates needing, giving a hand up

Food pantry marks 20 years of giving, receiving

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff Writer


Celebrating her 91st birthday on Monday, Juanita Cox receives a pin honoring her volunteer efforts at the Homer Community Food Pantry since 1991 from Diana Jeska, pantry director.

Years ago, as a newly single mom with two young daughters, things were tight. I'd just landed a job as a clerk in the Juneau Probation Office and was thrilled at the prospect of a steady, although small, income after months of holding down as many as three jobs at a time and living under the roofs of family and friends.

My daughters, Jennifer and Emily, and I moved into a one-bedroom apartment. Someone loaned us a double mattress that went on the floor of the bedroom for the girls to sleep on. We rounded up wooden vegetable crates from a nearby grocery store and turned them into shelves for our clothes. A donated couch provided a place for me to sleep. Someone else gave us three plates, three forks, three spoon, three knives, a saucepan and a frying pan.

Putting together an office wardrobe was simple. I had a skirt, a pair of pants, a turtleneck, a coat and a pair of boots. Getting the girls ready for school was a bit tougher. For starters, the luxury of lunch boxes didn't fit our tiny budget. Instead, I found a remnant of quilt fabric and sewed drawstring bags, each one big enough for a sandwich, a few carrot or celery sticks, a cookie and a juice box.

Memories of those days came flooding back Monday when I attended Homer Community Food Pantry's noontime celebration of 20 years serving food to area residents needing a little help. The food pantry is based in the basement of Homer United Methodist Church. Sitting at a table with Diana Jeska, the food pantry director, and her crew of volunteers, I noticed a young woman and little girl standing just outside the door. It was like looking back across the years at myself.

"Will they come in?" I asked Jeska.

She assured me they would.

Jeska would know. She's been organizing donations of food, collecting names of those in need of help and distributing food, clothing and whatever else is needed for years. At Monday's celebration, a display of photographs showed others who have helped in that effort.

Jeska took advantage of the day to recognize volunteers who have given many years of service. Among them was Juanita Cox who not only turned 91 Monday, but also has been volunteering at the food pantry since 1991.

"She's a 'forever' person," Jeska said of Cox's years of service.

As they do every Monday morning, volunteers sorted food items to be picked up by clients later in the day. Other volunteers packed food into containers to be sent to individuals in neighboring communities: 25 went to the south side of Kachemak Bay; 11 went to Anchor Point; three were delivered to homebound people in the Homer area.

Representing the Pratt Museum, Savanna Bradley and Holly Cusack-McVeigh arrived with a box of food collected by Pratt personnel. It was in honor of Hulkia Strydom, a long-time food pantry advocate who died earlier his year and whose son, Wes, is a former museum board member.

"The best way to let Wes know we're behind him and his family is to honor Hulkia," said Cusak-McVeigh.

From a table covered with fresh vegetables, Karen Moore gathered ingredients for soup she makes every week for students at Homer Flex School. Moore began doing this three years ago when her son was a student at Flex.

In the kitchen, chef and nutrition educator Lena Blair used her skill to transform tuna into sandwiches for the volunteers' lunch that beat anything I've ever made with tuna. A few chopped walnuts and grapes, a few slices of red and yellow peppers and she had trays of colorful, mouth-watering sandwiches ready to go.

Someone else delivered items from three recent garage sales that were free to food pantry clients. Another volunteer set out plants donated by Cookie's Country Greenhouse to be given away.

In another room, Cil Manchester and Gloria Hensen, representing the Omnicrom chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma and working with the food pantry, prepared to distribute school supplies and backpacks to young food pantry clients. With the help of the United Methodist Church, Glacierview Baptist Church and Christian Community Church, more than 60 backpacks filled with the necessary school supplies already have been put into the hands of school children.

"What a giving community we have," said Jeska. "Homer is so special that way."

More help on Monday is needed — "some steady volunteers who feel like this is the sort of thing they would like to do. It's a good way to give back to the community," said Jeska.

Needing and giving a helping hand are two sides of the same coin. It's easy to forget the narrow distance separating them.

Mondays at the Homer Community Food Pantry are a good reminder.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben. jackinsky@homernews.com.