Food Pantry Staffer Embraces 'Rewarding Exhaustion' In Essential Duties

May 20, 2020

Since the pandemic started, the number of people visiting food pantries in New England has jumped.

In Northampton, Massachusetts, the Survival Center is serving more than three times as many households, from across 18 communities.

Volunteer Bryan Lapointe, wearing a cloth mask over an N95 mask, handed out bags filled with food.

“I’ve got cheese, milk and fish for you,” said Lapointe. 

“Wonderful!” said 66-year-old Mark Fisher, as he put the bags in his car. 

Bagged food at the emergency food distribution program, run by Northampton Survival Center, Grow Food Northampton and Community Action Pioneer Valley.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPR

Fisher is retired and usually drives an Uber to supplement his income, but he isn’t driving during the pandemic.

“You know, money is really tight, so every little bit helps," he said. "That's for sure.” 

Diane Duseau said she depends on the food. She’s on a fixed income and said the Survival Center gives a little bit of everything, including fresh fruit and vegetables.

"Enough to make meals. A lot of canned goods and pasta. Sometimes you get meat, which really helps," she said. "It’s always been a comforting place to come."

On this breezy, sunny day, a line of cars and a bicyclist snaked towards the front of Jackson Street School. Adults and children waited for food at the Survival Center's new pandemic location.

Diane Drohan surveyed the scene.

"All the clients have masks on," she said. "I like that."

Drohan has been working for the Survival Center for seven years. Before the pandemic, she worked with about 200 volunteers five days a week to feed hundreds of families. Now the number of households has spiked, but because of safety precautions, Drohan directs fewer people.

"Nurie, would you do me a favor?" she asked one volunteer. "Can you go in and tell Julie after we run out of the shredded cheese, we’re going to hand out a pound of butter? Let her know there are cases of butter that came from the food bank today. Thank you."

Drohan’s official title is volunteer coordinator, but she’s more like a traffic cop — greeting clients, lifting heavy boxes and directing food pantry workers on what to give out.

"If there’s no toilet paper, we’ll move to paper towels," she said to another food pantry worker. "Thank you."

Diane Drohan, volunteer coordinator at Northampton Survival Center, examines a box of food that will be handed out to people in need at an emergency food distribution center. Volunteer Bryan Lapointe waits for clients to arrive.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPR

Some days are more challenging than others — like a Monday last month. It started with Drohan learning two volunteers were out sick. She had to find replacements. Then a truck full of food arrived from The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.

"And we unloaded it," Drohan recalled. "The volunteer said, 'We've got 20 cases of frozen chicken.' And I said, 'Great!' [I] showed her where the two freezers are. Well, one of the freezers had gone down."

The chicken was threatening to thaw, the clock was ticking, and clients were about to show up. So she got another volunteer, Lapointe, who usually hands out the food, to go to the pantry’s permanent location.

"I said, 'Bryan, I need you to take this extra meat, get it in your car, bring it over the Survival Center and put it in the freezers there,'" Drohan said. "Well, as it turned out, there was barely any room in our freezers."

And to make matters worse, there was more chicken coming. Drohan’s solution: have volunteers tear open the boxes and stuff as many drumsticks into the freezer as would fit.

Meanwhile, she started handing out bags of food to people in their cars, something she doesn’t get to do that often.

"And they just have that look of hunger on their face, even though a majority of them did have masks on. And they [are] just so happy to see us, and so grateful. And so, for me, that's just heartwarming," Drohan said. "And it felt good that this week I could say to them, 'Hey, today we're giving out eggs.'"

Diane Drohan of the Northampton Survival Center juggles directing volunteers, handing out food to people in need, and recycling.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPR

Pre-pandemic, the Survival Center would open its doors, and kind of like a store, clients would come inside and choose their food. But at the end of March, the center announced it had to close temporarily and rethink its operations.

Drohan sent out a note to volunteers.

"I literally had tears on my computer as I was sending this email," she said.

She was sad for the volunteers who love the work, for herself and — for people who need the food.

But about a week later, the center, along with Grow Food Northampton and Community Action Pioneer Valley, launched an emergency food operation based at the Jackson Street School, which is empty of kids and teachers. That is where the food is sorted, handed out to some families, or picked up for delivery to 11 locations, including senior and low-income housing sites.

Drohan directs gloved and masked volunteers, who are screened each day to make sure they’re healthy, to work at one of the round tables in the cafeteria bagging up food.

"Hey, Melissa, great. I'm glad you got here," Drohan greeted one volunteer. "The list is over there. We're doing two potatoes. Couple apples, orange, onion in each bag. We need to make up a total of 510 or 520 of those."

Drohan first started at the Survival Center as a volunteer herself in 2011, along with her daughter, who was 16 at the time. They had just moved to the area from Vermont.

"It's just our nature to try to help anybody that just needs a hand. I just feel like the more you give out, the more you get back," Drohan said.

But she was surprised people in Northampton needed help.

"My initial thought when someone said, 'the Northampton Survival Center,' I thought, 'Really? Northampton food insecure?' Any time I'd visited before, it was to go to live music, art, restaurants. I had no conception that there was a need in Northampton," she said.

There are a lot of people who want to help meet that need. The hundreds of volunteers that Drohan worked with before the pandemic want to get back to giving back.

"But, at least for me, I have the certainty of that I'm going somewhere three days a week and really helping to take the burden off for folks that are hungry and going through a tough time," she said.

Drohan recently lost a friend to Covid-19. That motivates her even more.

"Like, my heart was in it 110% from the beginning, but now it's like, you know that any particular person that you run into on any given day, whether they're a client or a volunteer or a coworker, this can hit anybody," she said. "And we just — everybody — just needs to be there for everybody else."

But it takes a lot, as she reflected after many hours at work.

"The end of each day is another exhaustive day to an exhaustive week, but it’s probably the most rewarding exhaustion of all," she said.

Drohan continues to embrace that good exhaustion, especially now, when the need is so great.