'Neighbors helping neighbors' drives Wayne Township mobile food pantry
The mobile food pantry run by Al Pioch and his neighbors can serve up to 200 households a year, but there's one face in the crowd he will never forget.
He doesn't press people to open up when they receive groceries in the parking lot of the Wayne Township food pantry at 27W031 North Ave. in West Chicago.
But this woman offered to tell him something about herself: She was a single mom of six. And she had to forgo refilling her medications in order to feed her kids.
"She had to make a choice between getting medications and getting food for her kids," Pioch remembers.
Their encounter about six or so years ago is "burned into" his memory and it motivates him to help families avoid making those difficult choices with assistance from the food pantry that returns rain or shine 10 a.m. to noon Saturday.
"This is my way to give back," Pioch said. "It's also selfish to an extent because at the end of the day, when you're all done, we all feel so good as volunteers."
Pioch was looking for a way to give back 14 years ago when he reached out to the township's pantry about organizing a distribution for its clients. He enlisted 10 families from his Carol Stream neighborhood and asked each volunteer to kick in $35 to pay for the $750 cost to have a Northern Illinois Food Bank truck stocked with groceries roll up to the township's parking lot.
A year later, it was such a grass-roots effort that when a reporter asked Pioch for the name of their organization, he was taken aback.
"I just had a blank look on my face," he said.
But one of the volunteers overheard the exchange and told the reporter they weren't an official group, but "just a bunch of neighbors helping neighbors."
Ever since, that's what they've called themselves on their Facebook page and on the blue shirts they wear at the event: "Neighbors Helping Neighbors." And indeed they are -- Pioch said volunteers have seen families of their children's classmates turn to the food pantry in need.
But the endeavor has extended far beyond Pioch's neighborhood and now claims about 50 members who lend a hand by raising money for the truck, providing the manpower to distribute food over the course of two hours Saturday and cleaning up the parking lot.
"It's very, very fulfilling to me to see friends of friends, word getting out, people who don't know me from Adam, but they hear about this really cool event, and they want to volunteer," he said.
Neighbors Helping Neighbors sponsors and runs the largest of the three or four mobile food distributions each year for Wayne Township Food Pantry clients who live in Bartlett, Carol Stream, Hanover Park, St. Charles, Wayne and West Chicago.
Each month, the brick-and-mortar pantry serves about 150 households, which translates to 400 to 600 individuals, Director Juanita Martinez said. With the mobile distribution, families are able to choose from a wider selection of items they may not find on the pantry's shelves.
"It is really heartwarming to see that there are people in our community who want to take it further," Martinez said.
Pioch's employer, Bartlett-based Rana Meal Solutions LLC, is donating 80 cases of fresh pasta and sauces. Aside from groceries, the group collects toiletries and household products that can't be purchased with Link cards.
The volunteers also give personal attention and show dignity to the families who start showing up at 8 a.m., two hours before the distribution begins, Martinez said.
"I want to thank the community at large because we have been very blessed in that people are still willing to help their neighbor," Martinez said.
Pioch prefers to stay behind-the-scenes, but he speaks out about their work in the hopes of inspiring other groups in the community to get involved and host their own mobile food pantry. Anyone who wants to volunteer or contribute nonperishable items should arrive at 8 a.m. when the group is setting up, said Pioch, who also treats the group to doughnuts and, later Saturday night, pizza at Gametime Pub in West Chicago.
"It's so fulfilling," he said. "You get such a sense of accomplishment."