Helping Hands of Howard City was a few days away from opening their new building to the public, and board president Joyce Ebenstein was still unpacking when she heard the door open.
“I look up, and there’s one woman standing in the hallway,” Joyce recalled, “and she said, ‘This is beautiful. This is wonderful,’ and she looked at me very sadly and she said, ‘… Can I get some food?’”
In addition to her own two children, Cassandra Mitchell had taken custody of her brother and sister, and her husband’s income wasn’t cutting it anymore. Joyce sent her home with a car full of groceries.
That moment on a Friday in January 2014 was the culmination of five years of prayer and planning to move the 24-year-old food pantry and Feeding America West Michigan agency into its brand-new, $210,000 facility. Thanks to financial support from local congregations, discounts from building contractors and about $20,000 worth of volunteer labor, the facility is now 80 percent paid for, and the board hopes to be completely debt-free by the end of the year.
The old facility — “probably one of the original buildings in Howard City,” according to Helping Hands’ treasurer Fred Plath — was half the size with a basement stock room that was separated from the shopping area by a steep flight of stairs.
When Helping Hands acquired the building in the late 90s, they were serving 24 households a month, and it was more than enough to meet their needs.
Now they’re serving as many as 200.
Some of those people come to Helping Hands in a moment of crisis, like the man Fred spoke to in January who had just arrived in the state and was living out of his car until he could find a more permanent situation. Others have faced poverty all their lives.
Before her retirement, Caroline Maynard assembled circuit boards for airplanes. When her factory was bought out by a larger company, she said, “If you didn’t work 25 years, you couldn’t be an assembler anymore.” Caroline had worked 22.
Even before she lost her job on the line, Caroline had struggled to provide for her three kids, skipping meals or rationing food to stretch her limited income.
Now a senior with only her social security checks to live on, Caroline comes to Helping Hands to put food on her table.
“Most of it’s pretty nourishing,” she said: “Canned goods, dry goods, soup, sometimes meat if they have it, bread.
In the summertime, farmers [donate] vegetables.”
“Helping Hands is a blessing, I’ll tell you that,” she said. “I just wish they had something like this when I was raising my kids.”
As the demand for food assistance continues to grow in West Michigan, Helping Hands of Howard City’s new building has equipped them to meet the challenge. For Fred and Joyce, that means providing more than food to those who have been battered by hardship.
“They come in crying. They do not want to be here,” Joyce said. “I always tell them … that God put us here because we want to help and serve the community.
“I always tell them, ‘Honey, you’re just the kind of person that we’ve been waiting here for.’”
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