Fighting poverty one volunteer at a time

A representative from Big Brothers Big Sisters talks with visitors to last year’s Community Against Poverty Volunteer Fair.

By Roberta Gutwein

The U.S. Census Bureau recently released the latest statistics on poverty.   While there was no statistically significant change in poverty in 2011 from the prior year, the data showed that 15 percent of Americans, or 46.2 million people, lived in poverty last year.

Sadly, these high numbers are not surprising and do not reflect the large number of individuals who may technically have more income than the poverty threshold but still cannot make ends meet.  Ask those who run St. Louis area food pantries and they will tell you that the number of clients they serve continues to grow.  The Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry, which serves the entire St. Louis community, has seen its clientele double since the economic downturn and is moving to a larger location.

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Fortunately, St. Louis has a large number of non-profit agencies that provide essential services to help those living in poverty.  Mid-East Area Agency on Aging provides hot meals to low-income and homebound seniors.   Room at the Inn provides temporary shelter to those who have lost their homes.    Children in St. Louis City schools achieve academic success with the help of mentors from UrbanFuture.  Immigrants and refugees who need financial and other assistance benefit from the work of organizations such as the International Institute and Immigrant & Refugee Women’s Program.  Volunteers are an integral part of the work these agencies do.  Whether you volunteer one day a year or weekly, you can make a difference to someone living in poverty.

For over 15 years, I volunteered in my children’s schools.  When the youngest headed to college, he made it clear he would no longer need a room mother.  I struggled to find a new and meaningful role as a community volunteer.  Then I heard that the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) had convened Coalition Against Poverty (CAP), a coalition of faith-based and civic organizations dedicated to addressing the issues of those living in poverty.  Luckily for me and many others, CAP’s first project was to hold a volunteer opportunity fair.   At that first fair in 2008, I found out about Ready Readers and ever since have loved being one of its weekly readers at an area Head Start program.   For the last five years the  CAP Fair has provided members of our community a unique opportunity to do “one-stop shopping” by visiting with dozens of agencies that need volunteers of all ages and interests. 

We are in the midst of the High Holidays, a time for introspection and, among other things, making sure we are fulfilling our personal mission.  For most of us in the Jewish community, that includes some kind of service to the community in which we live.  How appropriate that the Fifth Annual Coalition Against Poverty (CAP) Volunteer Fair is scheduled to take place on Sunday, Sept. 23. All of the agencies mentioned above, plus many more, will be in attendance from 3 to 5 p.m. at The Heights in Richmond Heights.  The CAP Fair is free and is a great place to learn what our community is doing for those living in poverty and a great place to find a way to help.   

To learn more about this year’s event, go to or call 314-442-3894 or email [email protected].  While we as a community may not be able to change the numbers that came out of Washington this week, we can, through our volunteer efforts, change things for the better for men, women and children in St. Louis who live in poverty.  

Roberta Gutwein is an at large member of the Jewish Community Relations Council and co-chair, with Martha Scharff,  the 2012 CAP Volunteer Fair.