By KATE COIL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
For more than 11 years, Pat Griffin has spent her Tuesday and Thursdays keeping the food pantry at the Bluefield Union Mission stocked and organized for those in need.
Pat and her husband John moved to Bluefield from Virginia Beach, Va., in 1995 and in 2001, they began volunteering at the Bluefield Union Mission. Griffin said she and John had no idea how much time they would soon be spending at the mission when they began.
“When we came to the Union Mission, Mary Raub was in charge of the food pantry, and she sort of Tom Sawyered us in to working it before she retired,” Pat Griffin said. “We both started out just thinking we were volunteering and soon we were in charge. We are both organizational nuts, and I don’t know if this fed our problem or was an outlet for us. We love doing it. After we retired, we couldn’t go on mission trips as much as we used to, so this was a way for us to help out in the community.
Griffin said the pair had undertaken other mission work before coming to the Bluefield area.
“My husband retired from the railroad in 1995, and we started taking mission trips after that,” Griffin said. “We made five mission trips to Uganda. Being in the mission field really drove it home for me just how in need people can be and yet how much they still can do for others.”
Though John Griffin passed away in July 2012, Griffin continues on the couple’s legacy of keeping the Bluefield Union Mission’s food pantry stocked and organized.
“I have two new helpers: Nora Bailey and Bob Howe,” Griffin said. “They are both such a big help. It really is too big a job for just one person. All of us are usually up here about eight hours a week, except during the Thanksgiving and Christmas season. During that time, we are usually here until we get the job done because of how much we get in. Whenever we come in, we stack and sort items and then make up the food bags. The girls up front distribute the bags to the people who come in. It’s a never-ending process.”
Though many donations come in during the holiday season, Griffin said not many donations come in between the first of the year and the end of summer.
“The food pantry is usually the most full between Thanksgiving and after Christmas,” she said. “After Christmas, the food drives slack off. All of the things we get during that time period have to last us until the end of summer. We can’t go through feast or famine cycles. At the end of the summer, we are sometimes lucky to have just a few items left in our pantry. I think once we had only 18 items left at the end of the summer. When the food pantry is full, it is tempting to just dump everything into one bag and give it out, but we have to ration items to make sure it will last. You don’t want to find yourself at the end of the summer with just a bottle of ketchup and three cans of corn.”
Much of Griffin’s job is stretching the items given to the food pantry out over the leaner months.
“Putting just basic items into the bag helps us get buy until the food drives resume in the fall,” she said. “When school starts back so do the food drives. We have the same number of people coming in for help during the spring and summer months, but the donations are only trickling in during those months. On Thanksgiving and Christmas people remember and want to do the right thing. Afterwards, donations usually trickle in from Churches and other groups until the fall.”
Griffin estimated the Union Mission provides an average of 6,000 canned goods a month to families in need through the food pantry.
“We give about one bag a month per family, and we serve about 500 families regularly,” she said. “We get 11 to 12 items in a bag, depending on what we get in. Usually, there are a lot of canned items that go into the bags including corn, green beans, peas, canned meats and vegetables, two cans of soup, cereal, and canned fruit.”
Griffin said what items go into the bags depend on what is available in the food pantry.
“Everything we put in the bag is according to what we have available at the time,” Griffin said. “If we have extra items, they will go into the bags. Right now, we have a lot of saltine crackers so we have been giving them in the bags. We have been able to put some bread in bags lately because Sam’s Club just opened their new bakery and have been giving us the surplus. Sometimes we have to substitute items when we run out, like we will substitute spaghetti noodles and sauce when we run out of macaroni and cheese.”
Some items are harder to come by than others, she said.
“The hardest items to keep on the shelf are canned meat and canned fruit,” Griffin said. “Peanut butter and meats have doubled in price recently, so we don’t see so much anymore. Canned peas, green beans and corn are the most common items we receive because they are usually on sale. Keeping it all organized is the hardest part.”
Griffin said the increasing cost of food is impacting the number of donations the Union Mission received as well as increasing the number of people who need assistance.
“Peanut butter is the best protein for the dollar, even though it is doubling in price,” she said. “We get a lot of Spam, Vienna sausages and potted meat even though they are going up in price as well. As prices go up, more and more people need food and need our help. The number of people who come into the food pantry has gone up tremendously since I started working here. The increase is huge. We have also been getting more people coming in from outlying areas since the need is greater than it has been in the past.”
The end of the month is the busiest time for the food pantry according to Griffin.
“So many folks run out of food stamps and money at the end of the month,” she said. “These items are meant to tide them over until the first of the month. The last two weeks of the month are always the busiest for the food pantry. We hardly have anyone come through the first two weeks of the month, but t he last two weeks are so busy. We also help out in emergency cases such as people who are stranded or sent to us by social services. Sometimes, we have helped restock families who lost everything in a house fire. They come in and say there is a family they can need, and we try to help them as best they can. In the cases of fires, they often have them put up in a hotel room so we trying to provide them some of those pop-top microwaveable meals.”
Though times have gotten tougher, Griffin said the outpouring of donations from the community to the mission never ceases to amaze her.
“We are blessed,” she said. “God has blessed the Union Mission again and again. It amazes me how generous people are in such a small town. We see donations come in from big businesses to little ladies with two cans and everything in between. Usually, school food drives are matched by local grocery stores. Other companies in the area will donate items raised by their employees. This past year, we were blessed to death trying to find a place to put all of the things we received over the holidays. Having so many donations is the best problem to have.”
Griffin said the community plays a major role in helping the Union Mission give back to others.
“I think one of the reasons why this community is so generous is because so many people here have been in need and know what it’s like,” she said. “They give to those who don’t have anything now that they have something themselves. This community is so generous. They need the Union Mission and they appreciate that. It’s what we are here for, not just me, the food pantry or the Union Mission but all of us are here on this earth to serve our fellow man. We are here to serve. People who have nothing will give you they we can.”
— Contact Kate Coil at firstname.lastname@example.org�