Patchwork Pantry, an ecumenical, volunteer-run food ministry based at Community Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va., is bridging language and ethnic barriers of its clientele with the help of area college students.
Again this fall, students from Eastern Mennonite University and neighboring James Madison University are filling most of the volunteer spots on Wednesday evenings. Each week, 18 volunteers work to interview, weigh and bag food for clients.
Twelve EMU and eight JMU students signed up through their respective campus service learning organizations or directly from social work class, committing to work each week during the semester.
The pantry, which opened May 27, 1992, serves Harrisonburg and Rockingham County area residents with staple foods. The pantry is operated by a 14-member board of directors, representing seven denominations: Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Unitarian Universalists, Mennonite and non-denominational.
EMU students Nathan J. Harder, a senior environmental science major from Mountain Lake, Minn., and Aura “Pancha” Moreno, a junior justice, peace and conflict studies major from Bogota, Columbia – both fluent in Spanish – work at the interview tables each week.
Harder needed to fulfill a class requirement of volunteering in the community, but also wanted to get more involved personally. He says his favorite part of the job is “interacting with the clients who come and taking time to learn more about them.
“There truly is a great diversity of people living in this community and a great need for sharing and interaction to extend beyond the bounds of formal institutions, into the realities of our everyday lives,” Harder notes.
“My biggest surprise in this work has been people’s openness to talking about their lives during the interview process,” he states. “I was expecting a pretty strict and formal procedure, but a lot of mutual learning occurs during the process.”
Moreno volunteered because of the need for Spanish-speaking interviewers. She has learned a bit more about the immigrant population in Harrisonburg and says she has been “impressed with the courage it takes for people to recognize and admit that they’re in need.”
She is also struck by the variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds seen at the Pantry, reaffirming for her that “necessity,” or the lack of economic resources, is everywhere, even in the most powerful country on Earth, the United States.
Moreno was surprised one night to see one of her neighbors at the Pantry, and, another night, a member of her church. She realized how seldom one knows the circumstances of another person’s life. In Spanish, the saying is: “nadie sabe con la sed que otro vive.” She was also surprised to know that at least one of the JMU student volunters came out of his own motivation, not because it was a class requirement.
Moreno expressed gratitude for the opportunity to work at Patchwork Pantry, noting: “It has allowed me to see first-hand the significant need locally in the midst of so much abundance.”
Sheri Hartzler, Patchwork Pantry director, said that more volunteers are needed when college in not in session and that more workers are needed especially during the Christmas season and in January, 2005.
To volunteer, call (540) 421-6315.