They started lining up over an hour early last Thursday at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Pearl River, not wanting to risk the food pantry running out of supplies at the monthly pick up.
Most were not comfortable talking about their situation, but one 40-year-old woman spoke for many of those who came for help. She recently found herself in need of assistance after her employer cut back on her hours.
"They have given me help with the food. They are very nice," she said of the volunteers at the food pantry.
St. Stephen's has been home to the food pantry for over 20 years, growing from just a few families to over 40 coming to the monthly pick-ups and others receiving food in emergency situations.
"It provides real help for people in need," St. Stephen's Pastor Susan Fortunato said. "I've gotten the chance over the years to see many families who are struggling to make it on minimum wage jobs or local moms going through a divorce or school teachers who checked the wrong box and only got paid nine months out of the year and they need to get through August. I've seen it help a wide variety of people.
"It is really good for the church and the people who participate feel like our church is really making a difference in the most fundamental of ways."
Parishioners started the food pantry and volunteers within the parish still do much of the work, with aid also coming from the community, local girl scouts and postal food drives in Nanuet. There are also food drives at Cottage Lane Elementary School that donate to the pantry. Just Thursday night a local man stopped by to say hello and decided to donate $20 before he left.
The church also receives grants from the United Way and local organizations.
In addition to parishioners and volunteers from local schools, special needs students from BOCES also help with the work.
Casey Farsetta and Cristina Malanvierno handle the organizational end as the pantry's co-directors.
"I really like to do things for other people," Malanvierno said. "This for me was the perfect thing. I'm a good organizer."
Malanvierno started when she joined the church 16 years ago. At the time, they would deliver food to Spring Valley. In time, as it grew, they moved the pick-ups to the church.
"I came across some very desperate situations," Malanvierno said. "The kind of degradation we don't even think about when we think of people having problems making ends meet at the end of the month. It was well beyond that."
Thursday night, the volunteers came across a situation they had not faced before. Bags of food are packed before people arrive on pick-up nights. A woman told them that she had no way to heat up food, so many of the items they had pre-packed would be of no use to her. She offered to leave so someone better able to use the food would get it. The volunteers scrambled together a bag of items the woman could use.
"For me, it gives me satisfaction to do something practical. Not to completely change their lives. That's beyond my ability. But to give them a hand to show them we are here and able to help once a month."
The pantry recently changed its rules. Instead of keeping a set list of families that they help, they now open the monthly pick-ups to everyone. That has increased the number of people who come. That is one reason for the early arrivals.
"They get there early," Farsetta said. "It is first come, first serve. It was a huge change for us. I think it is a good change. It gets food to people who really, really need it."
One thing every person involved in the pantry spoke of is the increase in the number of people needing help. Years ago, most of the recipients were from Spring Valley, but they are seeing more from West Nyack, Orangeburg, Nanuet and Pearl River.
"There has been a huge increase in need," Farsetta said. "We have almost doubled the amount of bags we pack and give out each month. We get a lot more emergency requests.
"We are getting calls from people who never imagined in their lives they would be in the position they are in. They had volunteered at places like this and now they have to reach out (for help) because they lost a job or became a single parent."
She said they are also seeing more young people, even teenagers, and more of the elderly.
"It's pretty heartbreaking," Farsetta said. "So far, we have been able to respond even though the need has increased. It's a tax on the few volunteers we have. We do all the packing. All the shipping. Cristina and I do all of the reporting.
"It's wonderful to provide for a need, but there is such a need out there. You wish you had more. A lot of tasks get done miraculously each month. I think the need is only going to increase and I hope we can keep up."
The St. Stephen's food pantry is looking for volunteers. They are also hoping to bring in more donations, asking that they be restricted to food and money. Donations of food should be non-perishable items.
To volunteer, donate or to get more information, contact Fortunato at the Parish office by calling (845) 735-8888 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.