Many work together to help Vergennes club provide meals

COOKIE STEPONAITIS, LEFT, and Lisa Davis of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes prepare food in the United Methodist Church of Vergennes on June 20 for the club’s Meals for All program, which since March 18 has prepared more than 16,000 meals for anyone in the Vergennes area who asks.

It’s never been the Boys & Girls Club doing this. The only way you can tackle this is as a community.
— Cookie Steponaitis

VERGENNES — The lights have gone on in the United Methodist Church of Vergennes kitchen at 6:30 a.m. every weekday since March 18. 
Four hours later more than 200 meals have been packed in Styrofoam containers, put in five volunteers’ vehicles and sent off to feed hungry families and seniors in Vergennes, Ferrisburgh, Panton and Addison.
That’s the story for more than three months and 16,000 meals of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes’ Meals for All program. 
There have been many hands to make it happen: three club employees; at one point more than 30 volunteers, some of whom have been there daily since March 18; and the expertise of local restaurateurs.
But it’s still not light work.
There’s menu planning, food ordering and storage, cooking, delegating jobs, packing for delivery, sorting the meals to make sure the right number reach the right volunteers and families, cleaning, and finding funding.  
Interim Boys & Girls Club Director Cookie Steponaitis volunteered on day one, long before she took over as its administrator.
Steponaitis said she saw in March that even with local schools ready to deliver to students’ families more would be needed during the COVID-19 pandemic. 
“Unfortunately there’s room for us and food banks, and you might find that there are some people who aren’t getting their needs met,” she said. “As scary as it sounds there’s more than enough hunger out there to go around.”
Steponaitis pointed to the club’s many partners for helping meet that need.
“It’s never been the Boys & Girls Club doing this,” Steponaitis said. “The only way you can tackle this is as a community.”
For example, Sue Hameline showed up on March 18 along with Steponaitis. Hameline, a guardian ad litem for some club members, learned about the meals program on the club’s Facebook page.
“I know food insecurity is a big problem, and so with COVID and kids not in school that was going to be a huge issue, so I wanted to be involved in any way I could,” she said.
She started out as a driver, and then moved into packing, labeling and sorting. She works about an hour a day at home preparing labels, and then shows up at the church for two hours more of organizational work.  
Then there’s Peter Mack, who showed up on March 28 after seeing a meals program flyer put out by club AmeriCorps worker (and soon to be Director of Programs and Resource Development) Steven Maluenda.  
“I’ve never been a great volunteer in my life, and I’ve been retired for a few years now. I said to myself it’s about time,” Mack said. “I do whatever I’m told to do.”
He praised Steponaitis, Maluenda and the club’s director of operations, Lisa Davis, who joins Steponaitis at 6:30 a.m. in the kitchen. 
“These people who do this for a living are the real heroes,” Mack said. 
Davis pointed back at the volunteers. Some have had to stop because of work or other commitments. Others, like Mack, Hameline, Jeff Miller and Eric Reid St. John are daily or almost daily helpers, while others come when they can.
“They’ve been here every single day, non-stop, total commitment, just for a thank you and knowing what they’re doing for their community,” Davis said. “It’s amazing.”
Then there’s funding. Maluenda helped obtain a $20,000 grant from Ferrisburgh’s Hoehl Foundation; Panton’s Puschel family, whom club board chairman Jeff Fritz called “super supporters of the club,” donated $10,000; and the parent Boys & Girls Club organization came up with an $11,000 grant through the Panda Express Foundation. 
Davis added “little donations we’re getting from the community” of anywhere from $5 to $50 have been heartwarming and made a difference, and Fritz said funding is solid through July. 
There has also been strong technical support. Bar Antidote and Hired Hand Brewery’s owner/chef Ian Huizenga and Three Squares Café chef Eric Montgomery and owner Matt Birong offered their expertise, particularly in meal planning and bulk ordering. Huizenga also offered storage in his businesses’ coolers and freezers. 
“Ian helped school us, as did Eric,” said Fritz. “It really helped us make the whole process more organized and effective.”
Now, Davis said, she and Steponaitis can quickly prep meals, like June 20th’s egg salad sandwiches, cucumber and tomato salads, and potato chips.
The program’s single-day high for meals hit 275, and one Friday, when the group double-packs two-days’ worth, the club shipped out 523. Drivers drop off about three meals per stop.
“We have it down to a science,” Davis said.  
Those meals — recent offerings also include mac and cheese, tacos, barbecue chicken, vegetable lasagna and meatloaf — go to anyone who fills out a form on the club’s website. 
“There’s no questions,” Davis said. “The way I look at it everyone’s going to need help with this going on.”
Certainly, Fritz said, the club is serving many of its members and their families, but the list just begins there. 
“We have a number of senior citizens who receive meals. We have a number of families who receive meals,” he said. “It’s a real cross-section of folks.” 
Fritz was asked why a youth club should take on the task, and he responded the organization sees itself as more than that. 
“We’re leaders in this community. And taken from that perspective we have a responsibility to everyone who lives here,” he said. 
“And that (providing meals) is how you promote the cause we all support, which is the mission of the club, which is to provide a safe place for the young people of this community. And during this pandemic the safest place for them was at home, God willing.”
Steponaitis answered the same question. 
“Our direct mission is to serve children. And when you have children you know you have food insecurity when everything is normal, and you know that when everything turns upside down, and households that are one-paycheck households are no-paycheck households, you can’t wait for the infrastructure to come into play,” she said. “There’s no discussion about it. People have to eat.”
Original plans called for the program to run through the end of July, or possibly whenever demand drops to fewer than 150 meals per day. But all agreed the pandemic means the future is unknown, and another outbreak could trigger ongoing need for Meals for All.
“It’s a scary thought, that we might get that extra spike,” Davis said. “If it does we’ll just be here longer.”

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