Sue and Charlie Norton first became involved with the St. Alphonsus Food Pantry in Auburn more than two decades ago. Father Clarence Gardner, the parish’s pastor at the time, told the pair they would simply be responsible for handing out bags of food to the hungry families who visited the pantry.
“It just escalated from there,” Sue said.
Now most weeks the pantry provides food for between 325 and 350 families, she said.
The Nortons — the pantry’s coordinators — are one of three Auburn couples who were to be honored in early April for their efforts to feed the area’s hungry.
The Nortons join Lorraine and Bob Canino from First Love Ministries and Donna and Wayne Wolfgang from the Western Cayuga County Emergency Food Pantry as this year’s recipients of the Works of Love Award. The Cayuga County office of Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes presents the award annually to individuals who have reflected God’s mercy, compassion and love through their everyday lives. The Nortons, Caninos and Wolfgangs were to receive the award April 4 at the fifth annual Works of Love Dinner.
When Laurie Trojnor, director of the Cayuga County Catholic Charities office, called the Nortons to tell them they’d been selected to receive the award, Sue was shocked.
“There are so many other people I can think of that deserve it even more,” she said.
The Nortons say they don’t work with the food pantry as a way of seeking praise and recognition, but run it because they feel called to help the hungry in Auburn. Nonetheless, they were pleased and honored by the recognition, said Sue, who was quick to point out that their efforts would be nothing without the strong support they receive from the community.
“We have a good base. We’ve had priests that really supported it, and we have tremendous support from the parish, and we have good volunteers,” Sue said.
The food pantry is staffed by volunteers, many of whom are St. Alphonsus parishioners, she said. Parishioners also donate food and money to the pantry, and several local groups — including the Knights of Columbus and area schools and churches — regularly provide volunteers and donations. Auburn’s Sacred Heart Parish and St. Joseph’s School, for example, each bring a load of food and a number of willing volunteers to the pantry once a month, Sue said.
The pantry also receives donations from community food drives, including those held annually by Scouting groups and the U.S. Post Office. The pantry also receives grants from Food Bank of Central New York and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which allow the pantry to provide guests with fresh milk and eggs, Sue said.
“All those are the things that really keep us going,” she noted. “It’s a tremendously giving community, and they all reach out as best they can. We’ve never had to close down because we didn’t have enough food.”
Elementary and high-school students also frequently volunteer at the pantry, Sue added. Some do it because they are trying to meet community-service requirements, and others do it because they enjoy it, but either way it’s nice to see young people willing to serve others, she said.
“They get a lot out of it and they learn a lot,” Sue said.
Working at the pantry helps kids realize that they can’t tell just by looking at a person whether that person is hungry, and the next person to come to the pantry for help could be a neighbor or someone they wouldn’t expect to be in that situation, she said. Many of the pantry’s guests are surprised and discouraged to find they can’t make ends meet even though they’re working.
“They know that we’re here, and we don’t judge. We understand that it’s not something that they can control a lot of times, especially with these high gas prices,” she said.
The Nortons have seen an influx of new faces at the food pantry since gas prices started rising several months ago. Last spring they considered a busy month one in which they served 300 families. Now 325 families per month is the usual number served, Sue said.
“I’d say I’m getting between seven and 10 new families each week. It’s hard for a lot of people, and I don’t think it’s going to get any better. I’d love to say I have to close the place because there’s no more need, but I think that’s a pipe dream,” she said. “I never turn away anybody who says they’re hungry. We give them enough food for every member of their family for five days.”
People often ask the Nortons how they avoid burnout and stay motivated to continue running the pantry. The couple doesn’t even consider leaving the pantry to be an option, Sue said.
“I can’t because the needs stay, and these people need us and as long as I’ve got the ability to help, I can’t just walk away from them,” she said.