Charities struggle to remain open during winter storm

02/04/2014 2:01 PM

02/11/2014 11:14 AM

Tuesday’s storm forced Laurel Alkire to shut down Meals on Wheels services to 900 elderly Wichitans.

Alkire used to like snow. “Now I hate snow,” said the executive director of Senior Services Inc. of Wichita.

Across the city, agencies and charities serving hundreds of elderly, children, homeless and other poverty families shut their doors, expressing regret.

The Bread of Life Food Pantry usually opens on Tuesday mornings to hand a few days supply of food to 700 to 900 people – 300 to 400 families. They shut down.

Catholic Charities’ Our Daily Bread Food Pantry usually serves 100 on a Tuesday morning. They shut down.

Employees of the Kansas Food Bank, which supplies food to many charities and agencies, showed up on Tuesday, in part to coordinate who was open, and who was not, and where to direct anyone needing food.

The Lord’s Diner’s three hot meal locations stayed open, though; director Jan Haberly said they’ll probably serve hundreds.

The heads of all these agencies said there is no better testament to the real need in Wichita’s community than what happens on days like Tuesday.

Haberly said that during one of the especially cold days of last week, 300 people showed up to stand in line and accept hot meals from the Diner’s food truck that parks near the Evergreen Recreational Center on North Arkansas. At the time, Haberly said, it was 10 degrees outside, with a stiff north wind dropping the wind chill to below zero.

“We were shocked,” Haberly said. “We had another 275 last night (Monday), and people were asking anxiously whether we’d be there tonight. And we will.”

Since opening its first location downtown on Feb. 13, 2002, the Diner has never missed a daily opening, she said. About 400 people show up at the downtown location at night, and another 200 at the Planeview location, in addition to the hundreds who line up outside the truck between 25th and 27th Streets on North Arkansas.

Bread of Life, a longtime food pantry in south Wichita, interviews all the hundreds of clients who come in their doors every week, in part to make sure they come only once a month, in part to assess needs and provide counseling and other help. Donna Pinaire, the director there, said her volunteers are seeing a lot more new families come there in recent weeks – “in other words, families who have never come here before.”

“We usually identify perhaps 20 new families here every week, but lately it’s been 30 to 35 new families,” Pinaire said. “We don’t know why; perhaps it’s because more people are running out of their employment checks.” “I hated to not open today,” said Pinaire. The doors there won’t open for another food distribution until another week. The pantry can’t do it before then because it is so dependent on the 30 to 40 volunteers, who have organized their lives around showing up Tuesday mornings.

“The one thing that makes me hope it’s all right this time is that this is the first of the month, so people have got their assistance checks and can tide themselves over,” Pinaire said.

Alkire, whose agency runs Meals on Wheels, said the agency coaches clients to keep a two-day shelf supply of food, for days like this when her volunteers can’t deliver. She said the agency hasn’t decided yet whether the snow will force another shutdown tomorrow, but said they will restart the deliveries on Thursday no matter what the weather. “We won’t go past two days like this,” she said.

“It was hard to make that decision,” she said. But she noted that many of the 70 Meals on Wheels delivery volunteers are elderly. “We had to worry about them, too.”

Besides chronic need, Pinaire said, there is one other thing that her pantry has identified as a constant in Wichita: Generosity.

During the holidays, the pantry, which is supported mostly by a small church in south Wichita where most of the congregation members are not well-to-do, was down to only $10,000 in donated money for the pantry.

But they still decided to proceed with their annual pre-Thanksgiving meal handout. They ordered hundreds of turkeys costing $18,000, she said.

They had no idea how they’d pay. “All I could think to do was pray,” she said. “And in the mail one day arrived a check for $20,000.”

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