Local charities report drop-off in volunteers after holidays, ask Catholics to help during Lent

Volunteers from FCA Chrysler stock the shelves and boxes at Gleaners Community Food Bank's Warren distribution center. The nonprofit said the number of volunteers donating their time has fallen 15 percent since the Christmas season, and said volunteers are critically needed to help operate its food assistance programs, which distribute 96,000 meals per day to those in need in the Metro Detroit area. (Photos by Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

January, February and March bring greatest need for help at some of Metro Detroit's soup kitchens and food pantries

DETROIT — During Advent and Christmas, when the spirit of giving is the strongest, soup kitchens and food pantries are used to seeing an influx of volunteers ready to serve the less fortunate. 

But once the tinsel fades and the calendar turns to January, February and March, the holiday spirit that moves many Metro Detroiters to volunteer can be harder to find. 

This Lent, local soup kitchens, food pantries and volunteer-based organizations are asking the public to consider donating something just as valuable as money: their time. 

Gleaners Community Food Bank, for instance, reports a 15 percent drop in the number of volunteers since Christmas, while Catholic organizations such as All Saints Soup Kitchen and Food Pantry and the Capuchin Soup Kitchen and Services Center in Detroit are also urging more people to consider volunteering, especially during weekdays.

Denise Leduc, director of community engagement at Gleaners, said the needs of those in poverty don’t lessen after the holidays.

Fresh potatoes wait to be packaged at Gleaners' Warren food distribution center, which distributes fresh fruits and vegetables daily to tens of thousands of needy families. 

“In fact, it amps up because peoples’ (food) needs are greater as utility bills go up when the weather gets colder,” Leduc said, adding often low-income families have to choose to pay either food or utility bills.

Gleaners and its volunteers serve as a critical link in providing food to those in need quickly through programs such as the Food Rescue Program, My Neighborhood Mobile Grocery and Healthy Food Home Delivery.

Leduc said Gleaners’ greatest need for volunteers is in its Food Rescue Program distribution center, where truckloads of healthy frozen foods arrive to be separated and repackaged into family-size bags. Gleaners distributes an average of 96,000 meals per day, including health fruits and vegetables.

“That food could go to a landfill if we don’t have enough room to pass it through our facility because we lack volunteers,” Leduc said. “It’s a double whammy if we are not able to accept it and get it out to those who need it.”

An average of 120 volunteers are needed each day in order to run the Gleaners Food Rescue operation six days a week. Volunteers can be as young as 10 years old and can assist as an individual or as a group of up to 40 people.

Volunteering can also be a part of Lenten almsgiving, said Kelly Luttinen, marketing and communication director for Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan.

“Almsgiving doesn’t need to be material — it can be your time,” Luttinen said.
There is also a constant demand for volunteers at the All Saints Soup Kitchen and Food Pantry in southwest Detroit, which is run by Catholic Charities, she added. 

A volunteer packs a delivery truck as part of Gleaners' Healthy Food Home Delivery program.

All Saints Soup Kitchen and Food Pantry is located in the basement of the former All Saints Church in the area of Interstate 75 and Springwells, serving a largely Hispanic population. The operation of the three-day-a-week soup kitchen and two-day-a-week food pantry is essential, since there are no other soup kitchens close by to serve those in need.

“The area we service is kind of a food desert,” Luttinen said.

It is especially an issue in the winter months, when it is difficult for the homeless and others with transportation issues to go to other places searching for food. The volunteer openings are during the weekdays because both the soup kitchen and food pantry are closed on the weekends.

“Volunteers are crucial to the soup kitchen; otherwise we couldn’t continue,” Luttinen said. 

While volunteers are always needed, the All Saints program also is in constant need of donations — both monetary and food supplies.

“The volunteers actually bring in the food, cook the food and then serve the food,” Luttinen said.

It is also helpful for people to be vested in their volunteering, as there is a need to train other volunteers, Luttinen added.

Soup kitchens, food pantries and food-delivery programs are a lifeline to thousands of senior citizens, low-income families and homeless individuals throughout Metro Detroit -- all of whom rely on the generosity of volunteers donating their time, talent and treasure.

A blessing to others

Though the Capuchin Soup Kitchen is usually well stocked with regular volunteers, there are days when the soup kitchen and its partner operation, the Capuchin Services Center, are short and could use help sorting clothes and serving those in need.

“We have seen a decline in volunteer interest during these winter months, and with the rough weather have seen many volunteer cancellations as well,” said Maxwell Morrison, volunteer coordinator at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. He said there is a need at the soup kitchen on Conner during breakfast shifts from 8 to 10 a.m.

Bro. Jerry Johnson, OFM Cap., executive director of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, said while the holidays typically bring out the volunteering spirit, families might also consider volunteering on other important dates. 

“Instead of thinking you have to do it on Christmas Day or Thanksgiving, think about a date of something meaningful to the family, like the date a grandmother died, and use that as a date to volunteer,” Bro. Johnson said.

He suggested this thought process could help spread out the needs of organizations.

“We do have a lot of regular volunteers throughout the year that are so faithful,” Bro. Johnson said. “They are so consistent all the time. They are so valuable because they are so knowledgeable and they provide a good example.”

The Capuchin Soup Kitchen provides about 1,700 meals per day served at their two sites.

A volunteer labels a box of food for distribution. Apart from soup kitchens and food pantries, organizations such as Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan need volunteers for a variety of social service programs, including the Foster Grandparents Programs, which provides mentors for at-risk youths.

Similarly, St. Leo’s Soup Kitchen serves 40,000 meals per year in Detroit.

“We are very fortunate because we are usually pretty scheduled,” said Tom Larabell, program director for the St. Leo Soup Kitchen. He added the soup kitchen is frequented by many volunteers from area parishes and organizations that want to help on a regular basis, whether once a month or once a week. In fact, Larabell said there are only 13 gaps for groups for the remainder of 2019.

Though St. Leo's is regularly stocked with volunteers, Larabell said there is always a desire to see younger volunteers and to “open the pipeline to the recently retired” to get into the spirit of devoting time to those less fortunate.

Other volunteer opportunities

Gleaners also needs help at its My Neighborhood Mobile Grocery Store, which involves 16 local pop-up style grocery stores that sell affordable food at senior citizen complexes and areas where many low-income families and individuals lack transportation to get fresh fruits and vegetables. Pop-up grocery store volunteers are needed two hours a day, any day Monday through Friday for anyone 14 and older.

Volunteers may also help at the Healthy Food Home Delivery program that distributes food delivered to the homes of needy recipients. Though the need for volunteers is much smaller at the Healthy Food Home Delivery program, there is always a need for volunteers who are 18 or older to help carry food to designated homes.

Volunteering can be an important part of Lenten almsgiving, allowing Catholics a chance to practice charity while helping the less fortunate in the community.

Retirees can also help with Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan's Foster Grandparents Program, which operates in southern Oakland County to offer support to children with special needs through mentoring and tutoring in a school setting. Volunteers must be 55 years old or older, pass a background check and meet income eligibility. Participants receive a small stipend for their volunteer work.

Luttinen said the Foster Grandparents program is not highly publicized, so the number of volunteers has been low. She added Catholic Charities has a number of other volunteer opportunities, which can be found on Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan's website.

How to volunteer

Gleaners Community Food Bank: Visit http://www.gcfb.org/volunteeropportunities to view volunteer opportunities for adults and youths at Gleaners' Food Rescue Program distribution center in Warren, as well as the Healthy Food Home Delivery Program and Gleaners' My Neighborhood Mobile Grocery. 

All Saints Soup Kitchen and Food Pantry: Visit https://ccsem.org/allsaints/ or email [email protected] to inquire about volunteering at All Saints Soup Kitchen and Food Pantry, or visit https://ccsem.org/volunteer-opportunities/ for a complete listing of volunteer opportunities through Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan. 

Capuchin Soup Kitchen and Services Center: Visit https://www.cskdetroit.org/ways_to_give/volunteer to learn more about volunteering at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen's Meldrum and Connor locations, as well as the Capuchin Services Center. 

St. Leo's Soup Kitchen: To learn more volunteer needs at St. Leo's Soup Kitchen, visit https://www.stleosoupkitchen.org/volunteer or email [email protected].