We always take what we have for granted; we forget to cherish the families we have, the clothes on our backs, food in our bellies and a home we can sleep in. So many forget to give thanks on the holidays when we’re supposed to. Rather they focus on the food and hope that they’ll be able to get that slice of homemade pumpkin pie they’ve been craving for a year.
Many low-income households struggle around the holidays; they need to balance an already strained budget for the standards of living while also adding holiday expenses. As such, many turn to food banks as a source of food for the holidays.
Rockford has a few in its bounds: Cornucopia, Rock River Valley and Salvation Army to name a few, the most run by churches. Many large food banks are members of Feeding America, a domestic organization with over 200 locations, feeding 40 million in need, 12 million being children.
I used to volunteer at a church pantry when in late elementary to middle school with my mother, who checked people in and ensured they had proof of income and number in household. I saw many characters, each different from the last and usually giving kindness in time of need.
I remembered the feelings of good that arose from my time at Gentle Shepherd Food Pantry, which has now unfortunately closed; I wanted to bring others in and show what volunteering does to one, the humbling that occurs. This is when I decided to organize a group volunteering project to Northern Illinois Food Bank.
I needed to start somewhere, so I went onto foodpantries.org and googled local food banks. I emailed Rockford Rescue Mission, Cornucopia, and Northern Illinois Food Bank, all of which reached out, with NIFB responding fastest and most flexible on short notice. A spreadsheet was provided due to it being a group to record attendance for all who were to volunteer. Additionally, volunteers are needed to sign a consent form to ensure that they could lift heavy items and that they agree to the bank’s rules.
On Nov. 27, the day before Thanksgiving, sixteen of us went to the Northern Illinois Food Bank’s Winnebago Community Market, a food bank that mimics an actual store, which serves an average 750 households a week, according to the Market’s supervisor, Courtney Oakes. Nine of us were students from Newspaper class, four were other East students, and the other three were Newspaper adviser, Brittany Glidden, and her two daughters.
We were greeted by Oakes, who just celebrated her one year anniversary at NIFB in October. Oakes assigned us to positions that had an important role, such as stocking, weighing, and greeting the incoming shoppers for the Market. Such items stocked were meats, dairy, breads and toiletries. In just a span of three hours, 122 households went home with food for the coming holidays.
The smiles seen and thanks received humbled those who volunteered their time off of school.
‘This was my first volunteering experience and it was eye-opening. It made me realize how many families needed to be helped, especially as the weather gets colder and the holidays approach. Doing the right thing before Thanksgiving was special as well because it just showed everyone’s willingness to give and help others. I had a smile on my face the entire time I was volunteering because the experience was so heartwarming,” said Grace Nichols, class of 2020.
Oakes says the best part of volunteering is the people she gets to meet.
“It’s a great way to give back to our hungry neighbors in the Rockford area. I personally love working for this company. My favorite part is talking to all the shoppers that come here and just interacting with everyone,” Oakes said with a smile.
Once the final shopper left the building, everyone let out a collective sigh of relief and joy, knowing that their hard work at maintaining the Market and spreading its kindness had succeeded. Oakes thanked us very much, and we all gathered for a group photo to remember the kindness and fun we experienced at Winnebago Community Market.
When going to the break room to retrieve our items, Oakes revealed to us an interesting item in the Market’s possession: a giant name tag sticker ball. This ball represented all the volunteers who had passed through the building, adding onto the ball when their shift was done. When East High volunteers left, the ball weighed around five pounds. In comparison, Oakes says the Geneva location’s name tag ball weighs a whopping 150 pounds!
Volunteering is such a humbling and even fun thing to do, especially when you’re with friends because it not only builds bonds between your friends and yourself, but to yourself and the community.
Winnebago Community market is open to families in need Wednesday through Saturday at varying times, with Wednesdays and Fridays being by appointment only with few walk-ups accepted. Thursdays are open to the public from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m., and Saturdays from 9 to 11:30 a.m. For more information or for questions, call 815-639-1257.
“There are four things needed: One, you have to be present and live in Winnebago County, sometimes you need to make and schedule appointments. Two, you need a valid I.D. Three, you need to be in need and four, there are income guidelines, but you do not need to prove and attest to them to receive assistance,” Oakes said.