“Everybody falls on hard times sometimes”: Neighbors in Benton Harbor give and receive help

Like many people across the country, Thelma has found it difficult to afford enough food for herself and her family during the pandemic. She was laid off, and then the factory where she worked completely shut down. She hasn’t found another job yet. Making her budget even tighter, just over a year ago, she gained custody of two young grandchildren.

Thelma sits in her car with a hat on

“I just want to make sure they’re fed,” she said. “I try to make sure they have healthy meals, oatmeal and stuff like that. I try and make sure they have fruits and vegetables every day.”

To help keep her grandkids’ plates full, Thelma recently began attending the Mobile Food Pantries held monthly at Kinexus Bridge Academy near her home in Benton Harbor.

“It gives me some of the things I can’t afford to buy,” she said. “When they give me beans, vegetables, fruit, I like that.”

Thelma likes staying healthy and is a regular at her local YMCA. She also loves baking and cooking for her grandkids, things the Mobile Pantries help her do.

“I never thought I’d be in a line getting this food,” she said. “But I’m okay with it. It really comes in handy.”

Each month, hundreds of neighbors like Thelma line up at Kinexus Bridge Academy, where volunteers fill their cars with fresh produce and other food.

One regular who volunteers almost every month is Cherlyn, a social worker at a local school.

“I enjoy doing it — just being able to serve the community that you live in is always a plus,” Cherlyn said.

Cherlyn is always telling students and families she serves about the Mobile Pantries. Sometimes, people are hesitant to come at first, but she encourages them to do what they need to take care of themselves.

“Everybody falls on hard times sometimes. We all at some point need something. There’s no need to feel shame,” she said. “The people we refer are happy about the variety of things they’re able to get. Man, it’s such a blessing.”

Additionally, Cherlyn often brings food to her elderly neighbors who lack transportation and to her mom, who is also older, and now works only part-time in home healthcare.

“Any extra is good for her,” Cherlyn said.

For Cherlyn, volunteering in hunger relief reminds her of her childhood. Looking back, she knows her family at times struggled to make ends meet. But in the moment, she would never have known. This makes supporting families like Thelma’s extra meaningful for her.

“My father died when I was six, so my mom had to make sure everything was taken care of. She always made it look good. She never showed us that we were struggling because they always had something.”

Feeding America West Michigan provides Mobile Pantries to communities across Berrien County with the help of various grantors and donors. This program is made possible in part by grants from the Berrien Community Foundation, including their For Good grant and Heart of Cook grant. Mobile Pantries in the county are also funded in part by the St. Joseph-Benton Harbor Rotary Club Foundation.

We’re grateful for their support, and the efforts of volunteers like Cherlyn, as we fight to end hunger in Berrien County.

Story written by Communication Specialist Juliana Ludema