Merrimack Valley Food Bank and Lazarus House Ministries – A Very Special Thank You

Amy Pessia, Executive Director of Merrimack Valley Food Bank, talks about the interdependent relationship with Lazarus House, how our Missions align beautifully and a cooperative 20-year partnership in serving our community – providing nutrition and freedom from hunger and food insecurity. Food Insecurity Facts: There has been a 102% increase in food-insecure children since COVID began 21.8% of MA households with children are currently suffering from food insecurity 1 in 6 White, 1 in 4 Latinx, and 1 in 3 Black households face food insecurity Sources: Feeding America , Project Bread

It’s a fine line that separates his Service from his Need

Eric Webster says he would not presume to know the life circumstances that bring guests to Lazarus House for help with food, shelter or clothing, but it is certain that very few of our volunteers share his life story of knowing first-hand the support that is offered.

Webster, 49, one of six children, remembers “growing up in rough Lawrence neighborhoods,” relying on food pantries, and at one point in his childhood, turning to the Lazarus House shelter. “We had to move into a shelter because we had been evicted,” said Webster. “I felt sad that I was living in a shelter, but I knew we were out of the cold. I knew they would help us.” During that time Eric was forced to quit high school at 16, a special needs student and a victim of bullies, though few who meet him would ever know its impact and how precarious and challenging his life has been.

He tells of year after year when he and his family were continually one step away from losing their housing, but a quiet modesty leads him to tell of a difficult life story with a refreshingly upbeat attitude. In fact, nearing middle age, he is able to live on his own for just the second time, and he was laid off from security work when a plant closed last Thanksgiving Eve.

“Losing that job put a lot of pressure on him,” said Ken Campbell, who runs the Lazarus House Food Pantry and stills helps him with food and necessities. “However, he always seems positive and does not focus on limitations.”

Webster has been volunteering at Lazarus House, which he calls “my second family,” for 23 years in the food pantry, thrift shop and shelter. Because he continues to receive assistance, one quickly realizes just how fine the line is that separates him from those who wait for weekly food distribution.

“As a child, I went to a food pantry with my mother,” said Webster. “I don’t know what our guests are feeling. I don’t know what they are thinking, but I know what I was thinking. I was fairly embarrassed – so I smile, say hello and try to make our guests feel welcome.”

When he sees people on the streets who are hungry, he tells them about the Lazarus House Soup Kitchen. When meets those needing food, he tells them about the food pantry.

“He is very well-liked and respected around the city,” said Campbell.

While others might want to try to turn the page after what he humbly downplays as “my struggles,” he says he feels a debt to Lazarus House that keeps him coming back week after week.

“I like being here. I like giving back,” he said. “It’s the people. Our guests, the volunteers, but mostly our guests. It’s their smiles.”

Lazarus House Food Pantry Resolves to Stay Open, As Need Grows

Bags of food from the Lazarus House Food Pantry

The staggering level of job loss, which has disproportionately impacted low-income Americans who work in service industries, has increased the resolve of the Lazarus House food pantry staff to remain open.

“People come by and say, ‘Thank you for being open, thank you for this food, thank you for staying here for us’,” said Jeff Hassel, Executive Director. “There is a lot of appreciation from our Guests that we have not closed up and gone home.”

In the first month of the COVID-19 outbreak, the pantry has provided food to as many as 800 families a week.

“We’re still doing a significant distribution even though people have been told to stay home,” said Ken Campbell, who runs St. Martha’s Food Pantry on Hampshire Street in Lawrence, noting these people have put their fears aside for much-needed food.

“We have skyrocketing unemployment, and many people who have not come to food pantries before will come now,” he said.

Keeping the pantry open is worrisome for the staff because of the potential exposure to the coronavirus from hundreds of people within a matter of hours, and then bringing it home to their families.

The stakes are high, especially since there is a COVID-19 surge expected this coming week in Lawrence.

“I am worried about being able to keep this open,” said Hassel. “If someone in the food pantry gets sick, then the rest of the staff has to go home and quarantine.”

The staff has made what they call “loving modifications” to best protect them, their families, and those served.

“The biggest change was a significant alteration to our process of distributing food,” said Campbell.  “People are not coming in for a shopping experience; we are prepackaging a bag of groceries for a ‘Grab and Go’ process.”

Bags of groceries are assembled and then pushed from behind a Plexiglas shield one-at-time to Guests who are socially distanced apart.

10,000 pounds of potatoes were delivered by Fred Anderson and his son.

Lazarus House Staff are so thankful that they can still communicate and connect through conversation and smiling eyes behind the masks yet through the protective shield – crucial to the respect and dignity that is the cornerstone of how Lazarus House interacts with their Guests.

While the selflessness of the staff is noteworthy, so is that of those dropping off food.

“People who I’ve never seen before are calling up and asking if they can drop food off, saying ‘I know it must be difficult’,” said Campbell.

Fred Anderson and his son, long-time supporters of Lazarus House, drove six hours to Maine to load 200 50-pound bags of potatoes onto his trailer. They returned to unload the 10,000 pounds of potatoes for the pantry.

“The only hiccup is that we distribute the food differently,” said Campbell. “Other than that, we’re still doing what we’ve always done and that is to serve our community.”

Local farms provide fresh produce for Lazarus House guests

People of low income typically do not have easy access to healthier choices. Mark runs a farm in southern New Hampshire, primarily growing corn on 80 acres. In the summertime, what is not sold at the farm stand, is donated to Lazarus House. It is a sizable, fresh and frequent gift that gets distributed to our guests in the Food Pantry, in the Shelter, and in the Soup Kitchen.

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