Teen volunteers' hard work helps Rochester food pantry reopen - Catholic Courier
Fairport High School student Katherine Pepin (from left) and Our Lady of Mercy High School students Sydney LaSalle and Kennedy Weigel prepare dinner at Bethany House in Rochester Oct. 28. (Courier photo by Jeff Witherow)

Fairport High School student Katherine Pepin (from left) and Our Lady of Mercy High School students Sydney LaSalle and Kennedy Weigel prepare dinner at Bethany House in Rochester Oct. 28. (Courier photo by Jeff Witherow)

Teen volunteers’ hard work helps Rochester food pantry reopen

When the food pantry at Bethany House prepared to reopen after a temporary closure brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, a veritable army of young volunteers stepped forward to lead the way.

Armed with strong limbs, willing hearts and social media skills, they assessed the pantry’s needs, coordinated drives to re-stock its shelves and prepacked bags of food for families in need, all while following the new safety guidelines required during pandemic times.

“If it weren’t for them, we could not have reopened the food pantry as early as we did,” remarked Sister of St. Joseph Karen Dietz, who was interim director while Bethany House was preparing to reopen. She has since passed the reins to E’Tiana Larkin, the new director of Bethany House, but is still involved as the house’s chaplain.

Bethany House, a Catholic Worker house of hospitality, operates a food pantry for Rochester-area households headed by women, as well as an emergency shelter for women facing homelessness, domestic violence, incarceration, addiction, and mental and physical illness. Both the shelter and the food pantry had been closed in mid-March as the pandemic worsened in New York. As the spring wore on, however, Sister Dietz became increasingly concerned about the food pantry’s inability to help the many people who continued to call and ask for food.

“So many people were looking for food, so I said we’ve got to open this up,” she recalled.

That’s where Molly Kantz came in. A sophomore at Our Lady of Mercy School for Young Women at the time, Molly was very familiar with Bethany House and its work.

“My mom actually volunteered there, and I’ve been part of it since I was a baby. I used to crawl around there while my mom worked there. I’ve been there my whole life, and I’ve met a lot of awesome people,” explained Molly, 16.

Molly said her family’s involvement with Bethany House not only taught her the importance of volunteering and helping others, but also helped her form friendships with real people who were battling homelessness, addiction and domestic violence.

“These are real people and not just a statistic. We see it portrayed on social media and in movies that (the homeless) are just drugged up and considered bad people, but when you get to know them and realize they’ve dealt with abuse or sexual assault or addiction, these are actual people who have normal things going on in their life that just didn’t go their way,” Molly said.

The teen knew Bethany House had been forced to close and wanted to do something with her unexpected free time. She called Sister Dietz to see if there was something she could do, and Sister Dietz asked her to help prepare the food pantry to reopen. Molly took the ball and ran with it, Sister Dietz said.

“She mobilized all these friends of hers from Mercy and other high schools,” she said. “The first thing they did was they came in and took inventory — what do we have in the food pantry, what do we need to order?”

Utilizing both social media posts as well as flyers posted throughout her neighborhood, Molly asked everyone she could think of for donations of food.

“I noticed during COVID people were eager to help and wanted to do something, but they didn’t always know how. By saying, drop off a bag of food to my house, that’s a pretty easy task to do and doesn’t demand a lot,” Molly said.

As the donations started to roll in, Molly and her friends began sorting them and, following guidelines provided by Foodlink, began packaging bags of food to distribute. They had their temperatures checked whenever they arrived at Bethany House to work, wore masks all the time and gloves whenever necessary, Sister Dietz said.

Because of the teens’ efforts the food pantry was able to reopen in mid-June, but the young people have not taken their foot off the gas, Sister Dietz noted. Several other teens have organized food drives, and one created a database to track how often families receive food, to ensure the pantry adheres to Foodlink guidelines.

“Any donations that come in, they’re stocking the shelves, they’re letting us know what the gaps are. They started organizing the baby room and getting the diapers sorted by size. We have baby clothes up to 2T or 3T. They’re organizing bags by size and seasons,” Sister Dietz said.

Another Mercy student, Sydney LaSalle, asked friends and relatives to donate diapers and wipes to Bethany House instead of giving her birthday gifts, and she also coordinates a group of fellow teens that comes in every week to straighten the food pantry and cook dinner for the people at the house.

“I have to say I’m humbled by what has happened to reopen this place. It’s so awesome,” Sister Dietz said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: To learn more about volunteer opportunities at Bethany House, email info@bethanyhouserocny.org.

Tags: COVID-19 Pandemic, Faith in Action
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