Ever since she received groceries and presents for her kids around Christmas 34 years ago, Juanita Martinez has been paying it forward.

She helps families who know her as the empathetic and longtime face of the Wayne Township food pantry and general assistance office, and she once stood in their shoes.

"I tend to talk a lot," she says near the shelves of the pantry Tuesday morning. "I talk to people all the time. I talk to our clients, and we feel comfortable, and we cry together, and we laugh together, and they open up and I can tell what needs to happen."

It's an understanding that came from her family's own financial hardship when her twin daughters, born with Down syndrome, were in and out of the hospital.

A mom of three at the time, Martinez turned to a Wayne Township financial assistance program, but didn't qualify. Instead, an advocate connected her with the pantry and helped her give Christmas gifts to her children.

"I wanted an opportunity to be able to give back and to be the person I came across many years ago who helped guide me toward self-efficiency," she said.

Martinez did that first as a volunteer, then as an assistant to the director and eventually the director of the food pantry she hopes to expand with a 2,433-square-foot addition.

"It's going to house a walk-in refrigerator and freezer so we can bring in more frozen items, more dairies, more fresh things that we can store," she said.

Hired 23 years ago, Martinez takes a holistic approach to running the pantry that distributes food twice a month to between 150 and 200 households in parts of Bartlett, Carol Stream, Hanover Park, West Chicago, Wayne and St. Charles.

"To me, a food need is a symptom of a bigger problem, so let's find out what that problem is," she said. "Are you disabled and not getting disability payments? Are you out of work? Do you lack the education you need to go on to a better job? So we look at all those and there's a lot of support groups in DuPage County.

"We just have to get the people to find them, and that's where we come in. We want to make sure we're not just giving food and sending them on their way. There's something else behind that and we want to make sure we address that, too."

With more room in the pantry, Martinez wants to address nutrition and fitness in clients who choose items from the shelves of the pantry from 10 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. Wednesdays every other week.

"We don't have a lot of storage, so whatever we're getting, we get the day before, and then it goes out, and that's it," she said. "But once we have the expanded food pantry with more shelving, we want to focus on gluten-free, more low sugars or low-sodium products because we do service a lot of seniors, a lot of people with hypertension, a lot of people with diabetes."

Though the pantry occupies part of the township's offices near West Chicago, it's a separate entity with its own board of directors. The nonprofit has launched a campaign to raise $211,000 needed to meet the total cost of the expansion and pay for new equipment.

Last week, about 1,000 fliers were mailed to area businesses seeking their financial support and citing statistics that almost 66,000 people are living in poverty in DuPage.

"People are always astounded when we talk about this because they consider Wayne Township to be a very upscale area," said Joan Mruk, the board president. "And when I tell them about how our numbers have grown that are coming here to the pantry or the years that I've been here, their mouths are open because they can't believe in Wayne Township we have that much need."

Martinez last fall applied for a federal Community Development Block Grant administered through DuPage County to partially fund the pantry's expansion. The county recommended the approval of the $335,000 grant, but the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has not yet released the money, Martinez said.

"We're patiently and anxiously waiting because once they give the OK, then we can start with the bidding process. We can start with the planning and everything and actually start construction," she said.

Despite the waiting game, Martinez is working to raise the profile of the food pantry that once helped her family.

"We're hoping that the community responds," she said.