For 28-years, Helen Brooks stocked her elementary school classroom in Newark with a supply of cereal. Each day, she brought a small amount of milk to school and kept her eyes out for hungry children who’d arrived without breakfast.
Now, as MEND pantry manager at Blessed Sacrament Church in Newark, Brooks remains, as ever, focused on the quiet hunger around her. The pantry serves about 300 clients, a range of families and seniors and single people in need of extra help.
Open four mornings each month, Blessed Sacrament is marked by the same warmth and creative spirit Brooks brought to her classroom. Clients are welcomed with coffee and tea. If the pantry has something to give away and not enough to go around, tickets are distributed and the item is raffled off to make it feel special.
Brooks takes care to listen to and get to know clients. When clothes are donated, she helps find the people who need them. When one woman asked for books to read, Brooks immediately found some to share.
“That might surprise some, that she wanted a book,” Brooks said. “But you can’t look at people and judge them at all.”
In 20 years as pantry manager, Brooks has been struck by the kindness of the community and the small gestures that help sustain the pantry: the 14 volunteers who oversee busy open hours, who deliver food to homebound clients and answer calls for help even in off hours; the church janitor who takes time from his work to carry in heavy boxes from the food bank deliveries; and the Newark city worker who stops by during his lunch break to see what needs doing.
Diapers and personal toiletries, from shampoo to sanitary napkins to soaps, are all in high demand among the many families the pantry serves and top Brooks’ wish list for Blessed Sacrament’s shelves. She’s also hoping to increase low-sodium food options and is on the lookout for more book donations for both adults and children.
“I really enjoy the pantry, I really do,” she said. “We are here to help and we do it with dignity.”